Monday, 30 November 2015

Whiskey and Water by Elizabeth Bear

At my local library yearly book sale, I perhaps went a little nuts. Financially stable for the first time in many years, the lure of the SF/F section was more than I could resist. (In the end, I spent $17, so it wasn't that crazy.) Part of the problem was that they had so many books that I'd wanted to read anyway, by authors I really enjoy. This was one of them - and most irritatingly, I'd tried to order it in from the library just to borrow a month before, only to have it withdrawn from circulation before they sent it to me. Fine then. I'm happy to buy it from you, although I'm annoyed that it's no longer there for others to enjoy. 

We're back in a New York, but one that, like the rest of the world, has become very aware of the existence of the Fae only a shadow away. (A huge dragon and magician war will do that.)  Most of those who have had contact with them bear scars and reminders. But there are those whose scars are other and aspire to Fae-given scars as a source of power rather than of pain. 

There is magic and Magick and power and Power. Fae and Devils and Angels. Magicians and mortals. Bear is not interested in giving us just a few character who have been affected. There are many characters, although it is not difficult to follow who is who. 

The peace that Elaine established when she took the throne of the Fae is uneasy, as such peaces always are. The Queen of the Unseelie plots to regain her equivalent power. Jane Andraste, Arch-mage and Elaine's mother, wants to reopen the war. Matthew struggles with a withered arm and crippled power. 

When I read the first book in this series, Blood and Iron, I cribbed heavily from Bear's vision of the Fae in the modern world and what they would be like when I was creating the setting for my Jazz-Age Chicago-with-Fae game that I ran two seasons of over the past few years. I liked her sense of menace. These are not fairies who are cute. They aren't just going to be mischievous, for the most part. They are dangerous, capricious, and often violent. 

In this next book, the politics of Hell and the Fae are central to the plot as it unfolds, and I loved those aspects quite a lot. There were a few times, though, that it felt like Bear was erring on the side of holding back information on what had just happened a little too much, so I felt occasionally lost. I get not wanting to be overt and tell me exactly what everything means, and I appreciate that. It's a fine line to walk, but there were brief moments of "what just happened there?"

It's a minor quibble about a very fine book indeed, filled with indelible characters, and more personal agendas than you could stuff into a very large sack. Everyone wants something, and many are willing to go to chilling lengths to obtain them. In the midst of that, what can a mere mortal do? What about a mortal with a little bit of power (or even a lot), when faced with literal incarnations of the Devil (based on different literary representations) and Fae creatures that have no compunction, and no need to teach you the rules before eviscerating you with them. 

It makes me miss my game, although mine was not as violent as the Fae are here. It's a world I was very glad to come back to, and I suggest other people explore if they haven't had the chance yet. 

Friday, 27 November 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Four

Zone One by Colson Whitehead vs. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Winner: Zone One

This is surprisingly close. Both were books that I liked, but engaged with more on an intellectual level than a visceral one. It is perhaps because I felt like the twist at the end of McEwan's book was too much like the one he'd already done in Atonement that decided this battle against him. In that case, the round goes to Colson Whitehead's very literary zombie apocalypse, where a government-in-exile tries to take back New York, while nearly all the survivors are barely holding on their sanities. 

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman vs. The Spark by Kristine Barnett

Winner: Orange is the New Black

I read so little non-fiction that I'm surprised to see two of the few I read last year pop up against each other. Although I do vaguely remember reading them in short order. Both I ended up liking more than I suspected I would from looking at the covers and reading the blurbs. So we have a story of being incarcerated that is told by a white woman, which troubled me, as it can become a story about the one woman who doesn't "belong there." It's better and more complex than that, though, and her recognition of the complexities raises the book above what it could be. The Spark is also better and more complex than I was expecting, but the scope of Orange Is The New Black gives it the win.

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay vs. Telempath by Spider Robinson

The Winner: Telempath

I make no pretense of this being a fair match-up. I have read Telempath many times before, although this was the first time I reviewed it. It's by my favourite author. It's not his best book, but I've always enjoyed it, and reading it is more an exercise in happy remembering than discovery. I've never been that taken by McKay's books, for whatever reason. It's not that they're bad, but they don't really make me sit up and pay attention, which you would have to do to beat out pretty much any of Spider's books. So this one goes to the survivors of a plague that increases the sense of smell a hundred-fold, and then find out they are sharing their world with something no one had been able to smell before. 

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud vs. All Clear by Connie Willis

Winner: All Clear

Is anyone surprised? Really? I disliked The Sentimentalists probably more than any other book this year. The prose was terrible, the story only okay, and it was just so clunky. It's rare that you find a published book that is actively painful to read because the cadence is so bad, but this book succeeded! If that is the word, and it is not. On the other hand, the second half of Connie Willis' WWII Battle of Britain time traveller book was quite satisfying. I had some minor quibbles, but she is so good at making us care about her fictional characters, time travellers and the people they are visiting. You care if they survive, for many reasons. 

Lives of the Circus Animals by Christopher Bram vs. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Winner: The Bone Clocks

It isn't as good as Cloud Atlas, but then it's unlikely anything will ever be. Still, I'm a big David Mitchell fan, and I enjoyed The Bone Clocks quite a lot. Even more now that I've read the previous Mitchell book that would have given me quite a lot of backstory had I read them in the opposite order. Sorry, Christopher Bram. I'm a sucker for books about the theatre, but this one just didn't grab me quite as much as it would have had to to edge out a multi-genre tale of authors and immortals. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Three

Image result for apprenticeship of duddy kravitz

Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear vs. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

Winner: Worldwired

So, in one corner we have one of the giants of Canadian literature, writing one of his most indelible characters. In the other, we have a Canadian protagonist, if not author, in a science fiction setting after an unimaginable attack on the Great Lakes area. It's a hard pick, but if I'm going strictly on which book I'd rather read if I sat down right this very minute, I'd take the last entry of Jenny Casey's adventures. Wheeling and dealing for land in Quebec is entertaining. But the world Bear creates pulls me in deeper.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold vs. Imago by Octavia Butler

Winner: Imago

These books have a core similarity. Bujold almost always has what would be the conventional end point of a story at about the midway point, and the rest of the book explores the repercussions. In a similar, but much darker way, Octavia Butler has been taking us through the implications of her world book by book in this trilogy, and Imago is perhaps the most troubling of the three. And that's saying something. I so enjoyed Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, and am sorry to see it go out so soon in this competition. But the unease of Butler's worlds, and the way that has stuck in my mind, mean that this one goes to her. 

Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey vs. Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

Winner: Caliban's War

I found Dreamsnake curiously unfinished, as though it were meant to be the first book in a series that never followed. It's interesting, but unsatisfying. Caliban's War, on the other hand, was thoroughly satisfying science fiction. We centre around four characters this time, all trying to hold things together in the midst of attacks that are coming from unknown quantities, with the threat of something truly alien threatening everything human,while the humans can't put interplanetary troubles aside enough to look at it directly.  No question here which wins. 

That Night by Alice McDermott vs. The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Winner: The Magician King

Well. This isn't a competition at all. One of the books I liked most this year comes up against one I felt was at best mediocre. If you can't guess which way that goes, let's just say that The Magician King hit all my sweet spots, as well as including some truly difficult material in a way that I spent a lot of time thinking about, and ended up deciding I liked a lot. There's a line in The Magician King that has stuck with me since I read it. I barely remember That Night.

Turing and Burroughs by Rudy Rucker vs.
 In The Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne Valente

Winner: In the Cities of Coin and Spice

Phew! This is an easy part of the round! Almost everything in this edition, with the exception of the Bujold/Butler showdown, has been a simple choice. This one is the same. I didn't like Turing and Burroughs very much, and while I couldn't keep hold of all the story threads in the second book in The Orphan's Tales, the overall shape lingers in my memory with a pleasing cinnamon smell. Valente is wonderful at enchanting her readers, and this was no exception.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Hush by Jacqueline Woodson

There's a lot in this book, and it's very subtly done. On the surface, it's about a family that has gone into witness protection, as seen through the viewpoint of the youngest daughter. They've all had to leave everything behind, including many of the things that made up their self-identities as people. It's also about discovering who you are when your reference points have been ripped away.

They're in witness protection because the father of the family, a long-time police officer who identified strongly with his job, witnessed two white police officers shooting and killing an unarmed black kid. When identities clash, partly because he can't help but see his two daughters in that dead teenager, he testifies against his fellow policeman, sending the whole family into hiding. He has lost his identity connected to his job, the brotherhood of being a police officer, and spirals into depression.

The mother was a teacher, and strongly part of her larger family and community, and loses that as well, finding new meaning in religion that demands much, but in turn gives a way of thinking about the world that makes the trials part of something larger.

The older daughter is angry that her life was ripped away, that her boyfriend turned on her. She looks for escape, pushing back against the very need for secrecy. The youngest daughter, once named Toswiah, now named Evie, tries to figure out how she feels about her father testifying, about the move and the secrecy, the loss of her name and her best friend.

It's about race, and identity, about doing the right thing and the hard thing, or sometimes the easy thing or the secretive thing. Evie/Toswiah has the ordinary dislocation of moving in the middle of your school years, but compounded by the entire lack of connection to the places and people who were part of who she was.

For a young adult novel, it's a difficult book. Not in writing style, but Woodson packs a lot of things to think about into a very small number of pages. It's challenging, and lamentably timely, given that the idea of white police officers panicking and killing black teenagers has not gone away in the thirteen years since the book was published.

There's a lot of room for thought that the author has left for the reader, time to think about how place plays into identity, how the very physical fact of the people and the climate and the buildings are all part of who we are. I remember the last time I moved, under much easier circumstances, but the dislocation of having my personal geography at sea for a while. My husband and I would bump into each other as we were turning a corner walking down the street, because we hadn't yet learned our own rhythms in the new space, let alone gotten to the place where we knew each others. 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Just Looking by John Updike

This is quite unlike most of the books I read. It's not fiction, which is the vast majority, or a focused non-fiction. It's a collection of essays about art and artists, written by a man best known for his literature. (I have only read Rabbit, Run, and I can't say I loved it.) I know very little about art. At all. 

So it's interesting to get a perspective from a layman, although Updike is careful to make sure he comes across as an educated and erudite layman. He wants his readers to know he knows what he's talking about. Still, this is primarily essays from the perspective of someone who enjoys art, but has not put a lifetime into studying it. Very few people can do that, and they would be unlikely to reach that stature of Updike has in popular consciousness. This is not a book someone who wasn't already famous could get published.

These were bite-sized chunks about various artists, some of whom I'd heard of before, and some of whom I hadn't. For the most part, they were informative, even if they occasionally shaded into needing to make sure I knew how smart Updike is. There are a good number of pictures, but many of the works taht Updike references aren't in the book, leaving me feeling like I might not have entirely understood his point, without the full set of examples to look at. 

He's a little snooty about Renoir and Wyeth both, although I quite enjoyed the photos of their artwork in the book. I know nothing about whether or not that's a good opinion, but I have far less knowledge than Updike, having to rely solely on whether or not I respond to what I'm seeing.

Maybe that's it. This book in enjoyable, but he's not "Just Looking." That's the pose, but there is enough needing to show that he has the right to write these pieces that he is constantly pushing to get away from the very title he's given the book. He is analyzing, and the analysis is frequently very enjoyable to read. It's just that the pose is uneasy. 

Several of the artists he writes on, particularly the sculptors, are incredibly intriguing, and I would like to know and see more. Particularly to see them in person - all art should be seen that way, if possible, but with sculpture that feels even more necessary to be able to walk around it , see the proportions and how it occupies the space.

I don't know if I have much more to say about the book. The essays are certainly accessible to a total amateur in art appreciation, like me. They are for the most part enjoyable, and if there aren't as many reproductions as I might want, I got a great deal of pleasure from staring at the ones that are there. In the long run, I may remember the pictures more than the prose that accompanied them. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Two

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James vs. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Winner: The Princess Bride

I didn't love either of these books, but while The Princess Bride only struck me as not as quite as good as the movie, Death Comes to Pemberley was truly atrocious. It committed the cardinal sin of making Lizzie Bennett boring, while shoving the one character James did write with some life, Lydia, firmly to the sidelines, leaving us with quite a lot of boredom, really. So it's an easy choice. I may not have loved the text version of Goldman's book, I did mostly enjoy it.

Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler vs. The Sea by John Banville

Winner: Adulthood Rites

My inner (and outer, because, let's face it, the nerd goes all the way through) science fiction nerd helps me decide this one. Adulthood Rites was my favourite of the three books in this trilogy, although I enjoyed, was challenged and unnerved by all three. It's a hell of a series, chock full of difficult questions about ethics and choice. While I enjoyed The Sea, over the last year, it has faded so much in my memory that it's very faint. When one book remains vivid while the other gets washed out, it makes the choice easy.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher vs. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Winner: Bad Feminist

There is something strangely appropriate about these two books coming up against each other. In one corner, we have a series that I quite enjoy except for the main character's chauvinism. In the other, a series of feminist essays about, among other things, how it is impossible to be always an ideologically pure feminist, liking only things that conform to our political viewpoints. We all like things that are problematic. Purity is impossible. While there were some essays that missed for me, there were many that hit, and therefore, not because I feel bad about mostly enjoying the Harry Dresden books, but because Roxane Gay is awfully fun to read, this round goes to a Bad Feminist. Instead of a chauvinist.

Magician: Master by Raymond Feist vs. Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia

Winner: Heart of Iron

This is one of those battles that's hard because neither book really struck me. I wanted more from both of them - stronger characters or prose or something. So this goes to Ekaterina Sedia because at least what she was showing me felt a little bit new - not perhaps as new as I might have wanted, but newer than Feist workmanlike fantasy, where nothing at all is innovative. I get the Feist is an early entry,but it doesn't have that spark that makes, say, Tolkien, a lasting name. If Sedia isn't quite at masterwork, at least it's interesting, and we get so little Russian-based fantasy. 

Dracula by Bram Stoker vs. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Winner: Haroun and the Sea of Stories

I liked Dracula, really I did. It's not a matter of that at all. It's just that while I enjoyed it, it never purely delighted me the way Haroun and the Sea of Stories did. Novels of vampires, however epistolatory and train-schedule dependent, can't possibly match the sheer pleasure of Salman Rushdie's prose, his messy fantasies of language and silence, They are gloriously, beautifully tangled, and that's just the way I like my stories. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

I Was A Teenage Katima-victim by Will Ferguson

I remember when this book was all over the place in the bookstore at which I used to work. (Possibly since it was shelved in the humour section, and that was the section that bred a certain kind of situational dread. Many humour books are big and floppy, and prone to falling on your head as you adjust other books on the shelf. I developed a strong flinching instinct in that section. It did not save my poor head. 

Now, however, it's a hard book to find, which is made more difficult when it's a book club pick. We're having to pass around one or two copies, as the library has none, and neither do any of the local used bookstores. That is kind of astounding to me, although perhaps a good sign - people are keeping their copies that used to be so ubiquitous?

At any rate, I was able to get my hands on a copy, a month early, thanks to the book club member who chose it. I had stubbed my toe hard on Ferguson's entry into the straightforward novel genre, 419, so I wasn't sure what I would make of something else by the same author.

Luckily, I discovered that his humour is much more palatable than the implausibilities of how Canadian authorities would react to someone being scammed. I ton't know if Katimavik was in operation when I was a teenager - if it was, it didn't really make an impact on my consciousness, but I saw a post on Facebook just yesterday, calling on new Prime Minister Trudeau to reinstitute it.

After reading this book, I'm not sure I would disagree, although given some of the stories of some of the conditions, I wonder how well it would fare when any amount of discomfort for people used to being comfortable is quickly seized upon.

On the other hand, I think a bit of discomfort for the regularly comfortable is instructive. Not verging into danger, but, you know, roughing it.

Will Ferguson relates his year in Katimavik, and while it sounds like maybe it wasn't the source of life-changing insights, there are certainly much poorer ways to spend a year, and while the value may be hard to pin down, that doesn't mean it's not there. At least, that's my feel. This is certainly not a picture of Katimavik as a source of deep spiritual or political significance. But still, not meaningless.

It's a story of seven young people, who frequently want to kill each other as they work cleaning up antiques for a museum in Kelowna, work with old people in St. Thomas, and build an "amusement park" in Quebec. They live together, fight, eat way more pasta than I could stomach, cook, argue, and do all the things you'd expect people in their late teens or early 20s to do.

I think the book was picked because a third of it takes place in St. Thomas, where the person who picked it lived. Will Ferguson apparently got there right before the Jumbo statue was unveiled, and gets a great deal of mileage out of the main tourist attraction being that it's the place an elephant got run over by a train.

But hey. When I was little, my grandmother took me to see the Jumbo statue. She bought me a coin with Jumbo on it. And nowadays, there's a microbrewery in St. Thomas that makes Dead Elephant beer. So it hasn't gone away as a claim to fame.

I enjoyed  I Was a Teenage Katima-victim far more than I did Ferguson's later, literary exploits. It's snarky, even though the youthful jackass does shine through. I'm glad I got to read it, now that it's in no danger of falling off a shelf and hitting my head. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015, Round One, Part One

The Dust Cover Dust-Up is back! For the third year in a row, I'll go through a lengthy process of figuring out my favourite books of the past year, putting volume against volume in head-to-head matchups! (It won't work out perfectly to a tournament format, because 128 books in a year is too few, and there's no way in hell I'm ever going to make it to 256. But I'll fudge it.) 

So, Round One. Every book I've read this year is still in the mix, soon to be whittled down!

Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson vs. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Winner: A Fine Balance

I enjoyed both these books very much. The complexity of areoforming that emerges in Robinson's book is intriguing, and satisfies the curiosity I had about the resistance after the first book. But it's hard to compete with the gut punch that is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. It's not an easy book, with no easy answers, and subjecting its vulnerable characters to any number of violations. But it is the rejection of outright despair that most find that gives the book its heart, without dully any of its anger.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson vs. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Winner: The Diamond Age

The decision on this one came down to an odd factor - which one did I remember better? I mean, we're back in January reads right now, people, and some of the books have quite frankly faded in my mind. Royal Assassin gets screwed because it blends too much with the first book in the series. I didn't love The Diamond Age, but it was provocative and interesting in the view of yet another corporate-dominated future.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Winner: The Curse of Chalion

Screw it. I'm overlooking the classic, however well deserved it may be, in favour of the book I'd pick up if both were laid in front of me right this very moment. The Great Gatsby was a reread, which may also contribute it it going out in the first round, however much that may enrage the ghsot of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Curse of Chalion was the last book I read in the amazing Lois McMaster Bujold gift package my dear friend Nele sent me when I was having trouble tracking down her books in the local library system. It was as much fun as her science fiction, with an engaging hero and twisty supernatural aspects. 

The Magicians by Lev Grossman vs. Saga Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughn

Winner: The Magicians

Melissa loaned me both of these books, and apparently I finished them back-to-back, so two of her favourites are going head-to-head in the very first round! Dramatic!  But although I love Saga, this was an easy choice. Saga's great, but I fell entirely in love with Lev Grossman's first entry in his trilogy. The language is beautiful, and it's a riff on Narnia, which makes it just precisely my kind of book. Beautiful writing, story, indelible (if not always likable) characters. It's a winner.

Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett vs. Scardown by Elizabeth Bear

Winner: Scardown

An even easier choice! I have not been a great Ann Patchett fan, although I liked Patron Saint of Liars more than the other books of hers I have read. And Elizabeth Bear is up there as one of my favourite authors currently writing. (And I just scored four more of her books at the yearly library sale here in London, so expect more reviews to come). Scardown is a middle book, but it's one that ends with a bang. Or a...but I won't spoil it. It's world-changing, audacious, Jenny Casey is amazing. So much fun, so traumatizing, and the end had tears running down my face. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

I had major problems feeling connected to the last Culture novel I read, It felt like the author was holding things too close to his chest. Banks didn't seem to want to let us into his world very far, and so kept the door only open a crack. I am pleased to say that I felt no such sense of being on the outside in Inversions. This was much more welcoming, a more generous exploration of a world on the edge of being subtly interfered with.

This has been described as a non-Culture Culture book, which makes perfect sense. There are at least two representatives of Culture in this novel, but this is not from their perspective. It comes from those on the world Culture is trying to subtly bring into their sphere of influence, who are resistant or receptive to the ideas that are subtly being circulated.

These books always seem to have an undertone of uncertainty - Culture certainly means well, and the alternatives are horrific to contemplate. Still, if you're on the receiving end, what kind of interference would you think was acceptable? When is the greater good really the greater good, and who gets to decide?

These are not the blunt interferences of the last book Use of Weapons. These are two people in far-separated places, one trying to protect the reign of a new ruler with radical ideas, the other trying to steer a good king in even better directions.

There is also a strong strain of consideration of what can and cannot be forgiven in these books. Much may be, but some things...cannot. They linger and fester, are hidden or overt, enacted in brutal ways.

The woman, a doctor, has to struggle with gender biases even as she negotiates the feelings that are hers for others, and those of others for her. Both loving and homicidal. Of course, as Culture agents, presumably, they are not without defenses, but although her defenses appear, no one quite ever knows what happens. There is never official recognition of their origins - it's only through reading his other books in this universe that it becomes easy to recognize what is going on.

Banks is also playing with dovetailing stories, again, more successfully than in Use of Weapons. The two stories never directly intersect, although the larger political picture of the world incorporates both. More than that, there are suggestions that if these two ever met, they would be revealed to have known each other, but that remains ambiguity, and it's precisely the kind of ambiguity I like. It gives me room to think and speculate and participate in this fiction.

I am batting about 50/50 with Culture novels. About 50% of the time, I find them dense and thorny, meant to keep the reader at arm's length. Then there are others that don't mind inviting the reader in for a sit and a chat. It will come as no surprise that I greatly prefer those.

It's not a novel that idealizes old feudal society - we can clearly see why Culture might want to intervene, to save the lives of those with no access to power from those who will clearly and frequently grind them up in war or poverty. But at the same time, it's never quite comfortable with intervention, and that makes for interesting reading.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is a curious book. It's not quite like anything else I've read. It's a diary-like book-long letter from a Congregationalist minister to his son. Having married a woman a fair amount younger, he faces the disintegration of his own bodily form while his son is too young to teach the things he would like to teach. Along the way, it is also a way for John Ames the mull through his own past, his failings and successes, his loves and losses.

It's a very meditative book, one that wanders through the past rather than pressing forward through incident after incident. Ames keeps returning to the seminal events in his life - the presence of his riproaring preacher grandfather, his courtship of Lila, his second wife. There are also the events that have ellipses around them for much of the book, things too painful to talk about.

Those last mostly focus around the delinquent son of Ames' best friend, a Presbyterian minister. The son has laid heavily on Ames' conscience, not so much because of his lack of belief as his behaviour. This old, old would rises to the forefront again when the son returns to stay with his family, and Ames must decide whether or not his urge to warn his wife against the man comes from pettiness and jealousy, or genuine concern for her wellbeing.

Religion is taken seriously in this book, and Ames is not going through a crisis of faith. He is not harsh on those who lack faith, but he himself has always believed, and knew from an early age that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. There was no rebellious phase here - his older brother took that portfolio on.

Christianity is not the contentious issue, but it is the underlying cloth out of which the story is woven. From a line of ministers, John Ames has found meaning in his life as a minister, which he struggles to figure out how to pass on to his son, when his son is old enough to understand. There is little judgement, much love, and acceptance.

At times, this almost doesn't feel like fiction, although it unequivocally is. The pacing is slow and deliberate, the thoughtful working through of a life lived, taking the kind of digressions that one might expect come to mind as one mulls over what has gone before.

Although the book is primarily and almost exclusively about white people, there is an undertone of race as an issue. Ames' grandfather took up arms to fight for the end of slavery. His father was a pacifist who couldn't find the sense in causing more death. Ames has largely not had to fight in his own life, but an unexpected revelation makes him wonder how those around him would react if they had been told what he was. Wanting to think the best of those close to you, but not sure that faith would be rewarded.

I wouldn't say that this was a book that I loved, but I was always intrigued by it. It was a calming place to sit and put my attention for the days I was reading it. I am looking forward to reading the other two books set in the same town that have come out.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell


*Major Spoilers Below*

I really wish I'd read this before I read The Bone Clocks. Although it did give me different perspective on this book than if I'd done it in the order in which they were published. If I'd read this first, I'd have much of the backstory for the war that's going on under our noses in The Bone Clocks. However, having read The Bone Clocks first, I couldn't read this as a story about a crazy cult whose horrifying secret for immortality couldn't possibly work. I knew it did work. Which makes it even worse to read. or does it? Is it worse that innocents are killed for naught, or for something?

Without reading the later book, it would be perfectly possible to dismiss the outlandish claims. It could just be the tale of Dutch colonial authorities in Japan, struggling to maintain a position in a country determined not to let them in. It is the story of Jacob de Zoet, an honest man determined to prove his worth to the father of his betrothed by embarking on a trade mission.

He runs into corruption on both sides, Dutch and Japanese, men who are motivated by personal gain at the cost of national loyalty. He meets a doctor who cares little for official party lines. (Dr. Marinus, who David Mitchell readers will meet again in other fictional worlds.) One of his students is Orito, a Japanese midwife, with a burn across her face.

de Zoet falls desperately in love with her, and when she is sold to pay off her father's debts to a nunnery deep in Japan where Europeans are absolutely forbidden to go, he fails to offer his protection in a timely enough manner to save her.

The Japanese man he asks to intervene turns out to have been in love with her as well, but his family disapproved of the marriage. Yet one of the things that impressed me most about this book is  how it is not, in the end, about love. Absolutely, several of the characters have strong feelings for each other. But they are not the most important thing in the world. There are many considerations, and love is one among many, and not the most important.

Orito is taken to a nunnery, where she rebels against accepting her fate, unlike the other women there, who have been taken from much worse circumstances, for whom these living arrangements are an adequate substitute. There, the price for comfortable accommodations becomes horribly clear, the women mere pawns in a game of pregnancy and childbirth, with outcomes that are only slowly and horribly revealed.

It's always difficult to know what to make of an author writing about another culture. Particularly when they are divorced in time as well as in space. There is a tendency to exoticize, to see people of another culture and time as fundamentally alien. Or to see them as exactly like ourselves, just in funny clothes.

Without really knowing how accurate Mitchell's portrayal of Japanese and Dutch interaction in the 18th century is, it feels right. Which is not to say that he's gotten it all right, but it doesn't feel exotic, but neither does it ignore culture. It's a tricky balancing act, but the imaginative leap Mitchell has taken is an impressive one.

If you read this first, it could be seen as a straightforward historical fiction. If you read it after The Bone Clocks, the supernatural claims are recast in such a way that takes a leap into the supernatural. And that, after all, is what I love about David Mitchell, the way he unabashedly straddles genre, and the way his books intertwine with each other. It's quite a feat.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

This Week in Stories - November 10th

Apocalypse World

We seem to be getting closer to the end of this game, and this last episode was largely all the different player characters going at each other all out. Which was fun and entertaining, and caused a lot of metaphorical flesh wounds. (And a newly missing leg for one character.)

This one was all about best laid plans going aft aglae.

My character was going with Fox to try to find Spider, and convince him to reach through the psychic maelstrom and physically summon the leader of the army from the North to him. At which point Fox would try to kill him. Gremlin was terrified of this plan, given that said leader was her former (and very controlling) lover. Still, she had decided to trust Fox, and figured this wasn't going to make her any more dead than facing his army would.

Unfortunately, Spider had hatched his own master plan. Having finally figured out some of his past, he was part of a program called UNITY, which seems to have been after mind-to-mind communication, and unintentionally unleashed the psychic maelstrom. So, now he's back on board? With it as a good thing?

So when Fox brought his plan forward, Spider was in the midst of a high of planning to recruit followers and take them against Marsh's army head on, and then bring Unity to everyone. This freaked Gremlin right the hell out, having heard similar (although not necessarily the same, she's acting from emotion here) rhetoric from Marsh.

Then she let slip that she knew Marsh directly, had even shared his bed. Spider latched on to that big time, and started to try to convince her to let him in her head to access her memories of Marsh. Which, no. Again, totally acting from emotion here, but she was already wary of Spider and his master plans to bring salvation to the world. Add into that a little brain peeping? Not a chance in hell.

Fox got defensive, because he loves Gremlin and saw her feeling under attack, and pressed his plan. Spider refused, still wanting to be at the head of a glorious army of redemption. Fox pulled out his gun. Spider still refused. Fox ended up blowing Spider's leg off, in a truly messy and gory repercussion. Then he and Gremlin had to run like hell, to keep from getting caught and killed by Spider's acolytes.

Luckily, Gremlin had just found the vehicle that Salvador had been working on for her. (Mechanically, I'd just taken the awesome Driver advance called "My Other Car is a Tank") The two of them peeled out and headed further south down the road. They have taken themselves out of the fight against Marsh, and are looking for more road. Fox is defeated, Gremlin is terrified, but they're together.

Lots of high emotions at the table, and no one wanting to back down. (This was only one of several confrontations that ended in violence.) I quite enjoyed it.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Let me try to paint a picture of where I was while reading this book. I read the whole thing while sitting at a nurses' desk in a hospital. (No one was sick - I was working during an exam, which meant that I was there for 12 hours and had plenty of time to read.) So, yeah. Reading a book about a flu pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of humanity in a hospital. It was quiet, with that hospital smell and dampened hush over things.

So, that was creepy.

The other problem with the location is that this is such a damned good book, guys. I kept teetering on the edge of tears, more than once, but tried to hold them back so I wasn't alarming the people around me. This was the big book last year, and I am so pleased that when I read it, it held up.

Of course, there are many ways in which this was a book that was likely to hit my sweet spots. It weaves between three time periods, from before the pandemic, during, and after. The after sections are 18 years after, when the world has settled into new patterns of sparse settlement. I like this kind of intertwined storytelling when it's well done.

It's also about theatre, so there's that. Before the pandemic, we follow a movie star turned King Lear onstage. Long after, we accompany a travelling troupe of actors and musicians as they do a circuit near the Great Lakes. One woman was a little girl in the production of Lear, and has survived and grown up in this new world, remembering little of the old.

I just wrote a review for Sophie's World in which I took to task for trying to show how people are simultaneously alone and never alone with an anvil and no subtlety. Just saying that isn't enough. What that book did badly, this book did beautifully. It captures both the omnipresence of isolation and the tenacity of community in dozens of ways, showing connections lost and found, broken and forged. It's never overt, but it sings through this entire story, and that was frequently what brought me close to tears.

I don't want to spoil this book. It's wonderfully, beautifully woven, like music, like a stage play. A stage play where things look like they'll never come together and then they do. The connections are many, yet never overdone. At least once, when I put the pieces together myself, there was a stunned pause in my brain as it worked to figure out the implications.

This is a book where Mandel manages to make you nostalgic for things that are so familiar, you have ceased thinking about them. There are lists, as those who were adults when the world went dark, recall what they miss, and it creates this strange sense as the reader can't help but feel these aspects all around them.

This was just a pleasure to read, from beginning to end. The setting, the interweaving of time periods and characters, those lovely moments of discovery, and awareness of being alone in a world where almost everyone who ever lived has died. The idea that that loneliness never goes away. But neither do connections.

This wounded world, and the small revelation at the end, they captured my imagination, and I strongly recommend this book to just about everyone. I expect to see it reach late rounds of my upcoming Dust Cover Dust-Up.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

*Spoilers Below*

This is not a book for me. I found it draggy, creaky, didactic and boring. It's been a long time since a book provoked that much ennui. (I finished it anyway, because I am nothing if not stubborn.) What amused me were the vast differences in people's reactions when I told them what I was reading and that I didn't like it very much.

At my book club, I described it to the group, and one of the members fervently agreed with me that it was terribly boring and so didactic as to be almost unreadable. I felt justified. Then, a few days later, getting picked up at 6:10 am to work all day, I said nearly the same thing, and someone's response was "I loved that book! I thought it was charming!" So then I felt awkward.

What I take from that is that this is a book that is divisive. So I apologize to everyone who was delighted by this book. I was bored by tears. I could see the scaffolding. It was clunky. It was heavy-handed. It is not for me. It doesn't help that I remember the great philosophy course I took in OAC very well, and so I already knew most of the philosophy the author was throwing like large chunks of dry bread.

It's not the philosophy that's the problem. It's the story it's hung around. The dialogue is painfully bad - and maybe it's only in the bits where we're in the book within the book, but I don't think that makes it forgivable. If your story is about the people in a book within a book recognizing their fictionality, the book had better be well written. Otherwise, I don't really care. I'm sorry if that's being discriminatory against badly written characters, but man, I have little enough time to spend caring about all the well-written characters in my reading life.

The dialogue was just painful, though. Clunky, and you could see where the responses were there to bring out the next didactic point, rather than coming from any real character place. I didn't really care if Sophie escaped into the margins. I really didn't. She was only the cardboard figure of the person in a Socratic dialogue who knows nothing. Some of the lines made me wince they were so obviously there only to advance the next philosophical point.

There is just so little pleasure to be found in this novel. The idea is interesting, but it's so rickety. Maybe it's the translation - I am not reading this in the original. But still. There is so little pleasure.

I particularly hated the way Sophie had a mystical experience - she just had it, as soon as it was mentioned, and then it was gone, and apparently left no lasting effect. What? That is not the way mystical experiences happen. There's a later Alice-in-Wonderland inspired moment where she is clunkily given revelations about the individuality of all people, and the oneness of all people and it's so, so overt and not in any way moving.

Wait till the next book I review, which I will argue does beautifully what this book does badly, without ever drawing attention to what it's doing. That book (Station Eleven) moved me to tears. This moved me to a slightly raised eyebrow. I felt part of nothing while reading this book. The philosophical sections are fine, but far too textbook-like, and the prose in between is painful.

I apologize again to those who thought this was charming.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Week in Stories - November 3

Over the Edge

Life has been crazy, but with any luck, it looks to be settling down enough to do some gaming on a regular basis again. For now, anyway. So, Friday night, we got to settle in to play a session of Bill's Over the Edge game. Last time we tried to play this, I was having a bad reaction to a spider bite, and took a Benadryl without thinking that I'd already had three glasses of wine, as we were celebrating my new job. So instead of me playing, it was more me getting drowsy, lying down on the couch, exclaiming "Woo, opium!" (it had total relevance to the scene I was listening to them do at the table, I swear), and falling asleep.

So, we got back at it. My character, Kit, was still reeling in the aftermath of another moon-induced three-day blackout. (Blackout in the sense that she still does things, just loses all inhibition and memory of it happening.) So she's coming down off drugs she doesn't remember taking, confronted with evidence that the blood she woke up covered in might have belonged to pretty much the worst possible victim.

For her, it's all about trust right now, particularly given that she can't trust herself. She has new evidence that points to her father's right-hand man, Fox. But no idea what he's done to her, or how to fix it. She's met three people in Al-Amarja, and only really trusts one of them, as of yet. Zilch the robot assassin she's suspicious of, and Pendergast she regards as an untrustworthy opium addict. (See? I told you the opium comment was relevant.)

For some reasons, she's decided to trust a Special Forces vet named Bruce, who served in Afghanistan and wears a tin-foil lined hat.  Maybe her choices are not the best here.

But at any rate, Amanda and I have some good chemistry going on between Kit and Bruce, and the scene where she showed him the video footage pertinent to the night before she first woke up covered in blood I really enjoyed.

There was a moment where Kit was working towards some major hysteria, and Amanda, sitting across the table, put her hand out like she was cupping my cheek, although nowhere actually near me. And I reacted as I would have had it been real, letting that contact (or the idea of that contact) ground Kit momentarily. It was interesting to see how that worked. Amanda apologized later for pulling me out of the hysteria, thinking it was something I wanted to push further, but it felt right to me in the moment.

Of course, then Kit invited Bruce to stop sleeping on the floor (he's there to stop her if she goes into another fugue state) and join her in bed. Except that he then saw in a mirror the reflection of his dead wife sitting beside Kit, making a throat-cutting motion. So Kit got turned down hard, and is hurt. Which will be interesting. She was letting herself be vulnerable when that's a hard thing to do, and we'll see where that goes from here.

That was the big character moment for me - the rest was sleuthing, using her investigative reporter skills to find out the two most likely places Fox is staying on the island. Now I have to think how she'll get in there. And what she'll do when she gets there.

One Shot

In my every-other-Monday group, we're working on how to negotiate playing GMless when it has been a role that I, for one, have missed. (Not that I want to GM. But I can sink into playing better if there's a GM to take care of overarching plot.) So we decided to do a couple of one-shots, and used the PTA card deck to come up with an idea. The cards we used were Agents/Love/Secret/President.

So, with a reckless disregard for any kind of realism, we came up with a story of three agents from two different agencies, with my character in the apex of a triangle. While insisting she was in a happy relationship, which turned out to be a lie, she had to interact with past and potential lovers. Melissa played my character's ex-girlfriend, with whom she'd had a long-term relationship but had stayed heavily closeted. Colin was her present partner, with whom there was definite chemistry and one ill-advised kiss.

Mostly, though, this was about how to GM. For last night, we were trying pulling tarot cards at the start of scenes, to suggest a new plot point, or at important moments, to guide how things would go. For the most part, it seemed to work pretty well. It particularly works well for me, because I know tarot cards so well, and it's similar to the process I already use for coming up with character ideas. I felt like I was riffing well on some of the cards to come up with plot points that I would otherwise never have thought of. However, just because it works well with my mental processes doesn't mean the same for everyone. But it seemed generally useful, with the proviso that maybe we draw cards less often, or let the person involved in the decision decide whether or not they want a card.

So it may be something we continue, although I think it works less well for at least one person than it does for me. We're going to try a couple more things, and perhaps keep using the PTA cards to come up with scenarios for another one-shot or two. I like them, anyway. I enjoy randomness.

The other part of last night was that I successfully fought a tendency I know I have. I often delay making a choice, and in this case it was clear - my character had to pick one of the other characters (or neither) by the end of the night. In some circumstances, I might have pushed for both, but in the world we were creating, a poly relationship was probably not going to fly.

So, at about the midpoint, my character had what felt like a pivotal scene with each of the other two, and I pulled a card for each one, and let it inform the scene. Then after both, I pulled another, quietly, and used it to come to a decision as to which one she'd pick, if the chance arose. Knowing that my character was going to pick the old girlfriend, I was able to throw in a couple of moments in the second half that played into that decision. (Interestingly, Colin said that one of them, a dance with the old girlfriend, had felt ambiguous in the moment - either a moment of connection, or a last goodbye. I'm pleased with that.)

So, in other words, early on, I opted for certainty instead of uncertainty, and although I like possibility spaces, it was good to have made that choice and then play towards it. I wasn't married to it - if what happened in play had altered anything major, I would have rethought. But it didn't, and there were some difficult and sweet moments at the end. All in all, a successful one shot. 

Monday, 2 November 2015

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I ended up reading this book twice. The first time, it was going to be a joint read with my sister, and I jumped the gun on reading it. But the joint part didn't really work out, and then by the time I was finally ready to sit down and write a review, it had been long enough that I decided to go back and read it again. (It helps that it's quite a short book, and that didn't feel like a daunting task.)

Then I started a new job last week, and it's been crazy busy getting used to that, so no book reviews at all got written. We'll see if we can change that from now on, because I'm backed up, not that I've gotten a lot of reading done. Good thing the early part of the year for me was so much reading.

My first reaction to the book is largely a problem of the marketing and inside cover. They both talk about the "Dept. of Speculation" referring to letters the main character (unnamed) and her husband sent to each other early in their relationship, putting that as the return address. This a) led me to believe the book was going to be from both points of view, and b) spend far too much brain time trying to figure out how that figured in. If they'd just not tried to explain the title on the inside blurb, and let me stumble across that piece of information the one time it comes up in the book, I wouldn't have spent time looking for things that never arose.

This is a problem, the looking for meaning, when the writing is so very impressionistic. I wish I'd known less, so I could just have sunk inside the prose that is there, instead of looking for the prose that was not. It's a book about marriage, and having a child, and surviving an affair, and wanting to make art through all of that, be an "art monster" who puts themself first, but which the demands of being a wife and mother and teacher tend to preclude.

Very little of this, however, is put in front of you easily. There are silences and elisions, musings on hurts not completely elucidated, leaving the reader to put together the thoughts of this woman and figure out what is going on. (Most of it becomes quite clear, but I enjoyed the way the book looped around and around the issues, the way it feels like your brain might when things are too painful to dwell on for long.)

There's a detachment about it, as the narrator experiences the events. (Is it a diary? Her thoughts? A novel-in-progress based on her life?) Having her be unnamed blurs the lines between narrator and author. There were a few phrases in particular in the start of the book, about marriage, that resonated strongly with me.

It's not an emotional read, though, or at least it wasn't for me. There's a detachment that I find very interesting, but not the kind of prose that reaches in and tears out my guts. She wants to stay, in some ways, separate from the stressful events in her life, and I think that works, and changes my engagement with the novel in interesting ways.

I don't know that this is a book I'd been running out and telling everyone to read, but it's one, if I was talking to the right person, I might pause, think about it, and then recommend.