Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I've been interested to read Ancillary Justice since I first heard about it. I mean, not only did it win all the major awards that year, the fact that it did sent some people whose opinions are diametrically opposed to mine into shitfits. So, it seemed right up my alley. Interesting ways of dealing with gender? Even if that's not the main thrust of the book? I'm in. And I was not disappointed. What I found here was marvellously well thought out and layered with complexity. Leckie is trying to do a great many things here, and she does them all well.

Let's take on the gender thing first. This is pretty much an answer to my pet peeve about Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. In that book, using male pronouns and words tended to elide the genderfluid nature of the aliens, because we are so used to seeing that pronoun used as a default. As I argued at the time I reviewed it, using a gender neutral pronoun, or even "she" would make gender more obvious as an issue, as we are not used to hearing the female as the universal.

Which is exactly what Leckie is doing in Ancillary Justice. The main character, Breq, the last remaining ancillary body of a ship that was destroyed, only uses female pronouns to refer to everyone. This is part of the colonizing empire culture from which she comes, the Radch. People may have different biological sexes, but gender is not attached to them, and sexuality doesn't seem to be either. Breq, unless I missed it, is never definitively given those cues that allow the reader to resolve her gender into one half of a binary, although some other characters are. This is partly because the worlds through which Breq is travelling sometimes do have languages that make differentiations based on gender, as well as one age or life cycle. Breq is frequently baffled by trying to tie cultural cues to gender to language, as she has travelled widely and new gender cues can be impenetrable.

(To be clear, everyone she meets is human, if widespread and greatly varied.)

HOWEVER. This is fascinating, and I loved the way it tugged my attention to assumptions I make about gender every once in a while. But it is not really the meat of the story. The meat of the story is one of revenge, of searching, and of identity in a universe where identity means almost nothing like what it does to us.

For most of the Radch, they have one body. However, the ships are equipped with up to thousands of "ancillaries," - hollowed out bodies of people from worlds conquered, with a disparate identity shared between all the ancillaries of a ship. The ruler of the Radch, Anaander Miaanai, likewise uses many bodies - how better to rule an empire that spans galaxies that by physically being present in many places at once.

So what is the core of identity? Is it the one you're born with? At one point, Breq finds someone offering to revert her to the person she was before she was Breq - and she responds with some hostility, as this person is more or less suggesting killing off the identity that does exist in the body now.

How Breq came to occupy just one body is slowly portioned out over the book, showing how rebellion and dissent might occur in an empire like the one shown here. Leckie showed immense attention to detail here in creating her culture, and it enhances the books in really marvellous ways - from the way people dress to the way they interact.

Honestly, as I put in very early plans to launch an SF/F directed reading group, I can't wait to get to a topic for which this is suitable, because there's just so much to talk about.


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

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Don't Bite the Sun by Tanith Lee

My first reaction to sitting down and writing this review was to check the publication dates of Don't Bite the Sun against The City and the Stars by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. They're actually published about twenty years apart, and certainly the way Tanith Lee is writing about society is very different, but I would seriously argue that much of the message is the same thing. It's the idea that if humanity can ever create a utopia where no one has to work, and people can live as long as they want, they'll create a soulless utopia that will erode creativity and spirit. (I'm also looking at you, Wall*E, that animated movie that was charming for the first while and then maddening as fuck for the rest.)

Man, I don't know. I don't know what would happen.  But I do know I get really very frustrated with this idea that somehow, pain is all that keeps us human. That if we let life get less painful, more comfortable, that instead of giving people the time and resources to figure out what they actually want to do with their time, that would lead to nothing at all. This then becomes, in its way, an argument against alleviating discomfort at all, because obviously that discomfort will help people want to move out of poverty, or bad relationships or pain, instead of being just one more thing that traps them there, and eats up time, attention, and temper just to keep going every day. (Also doesn't help that mostly the people who make this argument are generally among the comfortable.)

I feel strongly about this. I think we should at least give a minimum level of comfort for everyone a try, and see what it does to us as a society. And I'd love to see a science fiction author examine that idea without jumping to the assumption that what it's going to do is make us all bored and frivolous. We're inventive people, humans. Can we have a little bit more faith? (Also, early experiments in minimum basic incomes are not showing that as an outcome.)

This is making me get all cranky at Tanith Lee, which is unfortunate, because I really do like her writing. And the world she creates here is interesting. It's just too bad that she's picked a theme that I've seen a bunch and don't particularly like.

This does some interesting things with youth culture, sex, and marriage - without ever quite telling us why, if you're in the youth part of the life cycle (lasts at least a century, seems to be some indication people can get wiped, go into stasis and start all over again if they want), you get married before having sex. Marriage is mostly a short-term thing, but the young won't have sex without it, whereas the adults think that's adorable.

You can also kill yourself and get a new body at more or less will, although there's supposed to be a limit within a specific time period. Most get bodies that conform to beauty standards - the one character who doesn't seems to be looking for someone to love him for him, but the main character certainly can't get past the strange ways he looks when it comes to sex.

The main character (mostly a she over the course of the book, but gender is also swapped at will between different bodies) is bored as hell with the pursuits of the young, but is told that she's not ready yet to graduate from being "jang" to being an adult. When she tries to pursue a job,  she finds that adult jobs are just mindless busywork anyway, so there would be no help there. Travel doesn't help. Wanting to have a child doesn't help. There don't seem to be many long-term relationships - her own parents have stayed together for abnormally long and dissolve their relationship quite casually midway through the book.

It's a world where everything is provided and nothing has soul, where everyone lives a jet-set lifestyle and nothing means anything.

I mean, okay. If this were the only book I'd read with this as the thesis, and ones abounded about how a post-scarcity society might lead some interesting places, that would be fine. But since I've mostly run into the latter, this feels, while more drenched in sex and doing some interesting things with body changing and gender and purpose, much of a muchness.

Friday, 24 June 2016

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Reading this book feels like a strangely intimate act. The title is strangely apt in how it relates to this, where the reader is invited in to see someone's life on a material level, touch their things, see their surroundings, but with distance. You're not a friend, and these stories aren't for you. They exist, simply and sometimes harshly, resisting easy pulls of lessons or development. 

It's that combination of intimacy and distance that makes reading this collection so striking. That, and that so many of the stories feel autobiographical - written in such a way that makes them fiction, but there feels like a core of her own story, motifs we see echoed over and over and over, parts of a personal saga that crop up again and again. (And when you read her biographical sketch at the end, the feeling of personal story is in no way abated.)

The stories that hit me hardest were the ones Berlin wrote about drinking. They're not sentimental, certainly not flowery or romantic. They're so practical about moving from drink to drink, the planning that goes into staying drunk enough to ward off the shakes, how her children feel about it, the deliberate calculations of the alcoholic. 

Other recurring stories are of her sister dying slowly of cancer in Mexico City, of working in a doctor's office or emergency room, as a cleaning lady, failed marriages, her children. I can't say you get to know any of her children as individuals, and only barely more her husbands. The sister comes through clearly, though, the time spent there one of limbo, the kind of waiting that lets you get to know a person more intimately. 

There isn't a real narrative sense to these stories. They're sketches of life at a certain time and certain place and while things change between stories, not a lot changes within them. Even when events occur, there is little sense that who the characters fundamentally are has changed, nor that they've decided to adjust how they approach their lives. As mentioned before, this is aided by the planned limbo of alcohol.

The combination of autobiography with really smashing prose lifts this into fiction. It's hard to put an exact finger on what makes this writing so powerful, but a good deal of it has to do with the matter-of-factness of what she writes. There aren't bids for sympathy, or pity, no promises of lessons learned or tables turned. There is just what there is, sometimes starkly, sometimes with moment of impossible connection.

The connection of these stories with working life, the kinds of jobs available for women,caretaking when she can barely take care of herself, are striking. Even when she is sober, there are still the caretaking jobs - cleaning, taking care of her children, her sister. Even when the stories take place in the extremity of alcoholism, even if she's not doing a great job of taking care of people, there is still that looming responsibility. These are the roles she's performing or not performing. They are almost inescapable.

It's not a theme in the sense that it's foregrounded, but the more I think about these stories, the more it is apparent how her drinking is gendered and ungendered, depending, but her work is always strongly connected to societal spaces that are created for women. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

Somewhere in here in a good idea. The notion that first contact happened, not after the industrial revolution, not after we'd already achieved or were even dreaming of space flight, but rather in a time period where the very notion wouldn't even have made sense, is provocative and interesting. There are some good things in this book, but they were marred by a tendency to be far too cute, and the fact that the historian in the present annoyed the fuck out of me. 

So, we're in what will be Germany, on the edge of (or right in?) the Black Forest, just before an outbreak of the Black Death. A medieval town waits to hear if it will spread to them, as well as participating in the very edges of some political/military jockeying for position and theological debates. 

Dietrich, the priest in the village, is a hidden theologian, having run from some of the unrest years earlier, and concealing himself in the backwoods since then. This gives the author a way to be right in the thick of the intellectual currents while not. It's a choice, I suppose, and I suppose it maybe gives him the justification for having the priest accept the aliens when they arrive.

Aliens do arrive, the Krenk, who look like praying mantises, and are rather frantically trying to fix their ship so they can go home. (It seems to translate through dimensions rather than through space. So it's not that they need to escape gravity.) While doing so, they talk to Dietrich at great length, as he tries to convert them through the reasoned faith he believes in. (His assistant, Joachim, follows one of the more enthusiastic strains of Catholic thought, and appeals to their emotions.) He has little trouble accepting them as souls in need of saving, despite their lack of human form. 

That is not what I have a problem with - I think it quite likely that some people would freak the fuck out and some would find ways to accept an alien presence in virtually any culture. I am a little less sure of the association between being educated and being tolerant, but hey. Fine.

Where it does get too cute is when the Krenk explain different ideas to Dietrich and somehow, every goddamned time, he comes up with the exact term that will come into use hundreds and hundreds of years later. Once, it's cute. More than that, just stop. Just stop. It doesn't make him smarter to have invented the exact name of 20th century devices, instead of getting some right and some wrong. Microphones, photographs, proteins, hell, the concept "nature abhors a vacuum" - somehow Dietrich grabs on to the "right" one every time, like there's a platonic idea of microphones out there and he can see through time.

It gets worse. At the beginning of the book, Dietrich looks like a waterwheel and foresees automation to the level of humans never having to do mechanical tasks ever again,w hich is a pretty far fucking leap. I've read some Steven Johnson, I'm pretty sold on the idea that for some inventions, there are necessary preconditions before they can even be imagined, and I'm also pretty sure that nobody was dreaming of assembly lines and automation of everything in life in the Middle Ages. Why would you?

But then, the one that really bugged me because it's far too precious for words is when the Krenk are trying to explain, essentially, binary, and the idea of a 0 or 1 being the smallest unit of data, and Dietrich, I shit you not, thinks for a second and declares that he would call that a bisschen - that is to say, a bit. I mean, really? 

What does it add to have these adorable little features? How does it prove he's smart or not? It doesn't - it just intrudes the author into the story in such a way that makes my eyes roll so hard I think they might fall out of my head. 

Also, the whole idea that when the Krenk are trying to describe their rigidly hierarchical social structure, and Dietrich is baffled by it? Really? I am all for the notion of adding some complexity to our concept of the medieval mind - I'm sure there was more mobility than we might think. But I'm also very sure that the idea of a hierarchical society would not be one that a medieval priest would have trouble understanding.

(Not to mention, apparently the hierarchy for the Krenk is genetic and has never been broken, yet the first time it is stressed, it is broken, right there, which is when such ideas are usually changed. So...what? There was never a crisis before? Never someone in charge in such a way that breaking out of a rigid hierarchy seemed the way to go?)

So, in essence, I kept getting pulled out of this. Sometimes, the author was right, but a lot more often, it just seemed artificial as hell.

The other part I got stuck on is the historian in the present, who loves quantitative methods of history and spurns the qualitative methods, and has apparently no indepth knowledge of any given time period beyond the numbers that allow his perfect mathematical predictions.

Putting aside the objection that historical records are too scanty to allow for perfect mathematical prediction, I just cannot believe that someone made it through multiple degrees in history without EVER having taken a course that made him delve deeply into source materials, other than punching numbers into a computer. What would those courses look like? It just seems so ludicrous. 

Even if the kind of history he's talking about so snottily were possible, it just beggars the imagination that anyone could have gone through any kind of long-term study of history and never cracked a primary source that wasn't census numbers. Or taken a course from a social historian, a political historian, a military historian or...really, even an economic historian!

At any rate, yeah. I didn't love this one. There are some good things, but this is too far on the side of seeing people in the past as just like us, only with silly hats. (People in the past as utterly alien is equally wrong.)  And the historian in the future bugged me. There was too much irritating for me to relax and enjoy it.


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

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon

I suppose it might not be the biggest draw in the world to have a cover that showed an old woman mostly nude, wearing only a few things she'd made herself, completely unconcerned about covering anything in particular or anything more than being comfortable and wearing things that she enjoys. But did they have to go with such stereotypical ragged old woman clothes? It's such a big part of the book, the time Ofelia has to herself to figure out who she is without society breathing down her neck, and how she dresses when she can dress how she likes.

But I digress and that may be mystifying for those who haven't read the book. Funny thing was, this is a book none of my local library branches had, and so I'd put on my list to look for when I'm in used bookstores. But then I was at my in-laws, looking at their shelves and lo and behold, my mother-in-law had a copy! 

A lot of this book has to do with hierarchies of personhood, complicated by issues of gender, class, and age, then made more complex by the introduction of non-human persons. Who you see as human, who you treat as human, how you expect them to act and the ways such expectations become pressure to act them out, all are themes.

Ofelia was a settler on a remote planet, having signed up and been sent with little education - she was working class to begin with, and it was never thought to be much good to educate the colonists the corporations dumped on planets to claim them. She's old as the book starts, having raised and buried children, living with a grown son and his wife, dismissed because of her age. She's female, and in the restrictive culture of the settlers, relegated to roles cramped within roles.

When the colony is wrapped up, Ofelia decides to stay behind, the only human on an entire world. She spends quite a long time by herself, enjoying the solitude, deciding clothes as she knew them are not for her, and just generally not having anyone looking over her shoulder. Then another corporation sends a ship down, and it accidentally lands on something precious to an intelligent indigenous lifeform that had never before been discovered. The new humans are slaughtered, which Ofelia hears over the communications system.

A hasty crew is assembled to make contact, but before they get there, Ofelia herself meets with the alien species, who are progressing in technology by leaps and bounds. The section where Ofelia and the People learn about each other are fascinating, but the story both starts to cook and become intensely uncomfortable when the first contact team arrives.

The reader has spent the whole book getting to know Ofelia well, and learning as she does what the aliens are capable of, and what organizational structure their society has and what roles they value. She is adopted in as a nest caretaker, possibly the most important job, protecting and teaching their young.

But to the contact team, she's old, she's uneducated, she's poor, and she's female. Four strikes against personhood for her. And if they can dehumanize a fellow human that way, what chance do they have to get to know an entire other species?

As an exploration of class, gender, and personhood in the context of both human and non-human societies, this was enjoyable. The prose is unobtrusive, and the sections where Ofelia is dismissed by the contact crew truly painful. It made me think again about the roleplaying game I've been wanting to run about class and opportunity in a science fiction context. Maybe I'll get to do that one of these days.


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

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne Valente

I have often spoken of my fondness for fairy tale-related fantasies, and it feels like there have been a lot of them lately. Fortunately, most of the books that fall into this category have been great. I was excited to sit down with Six-Gun Snow White, by one of my favourite authors, whose Deathless is probably the single best folk/fairy tale riff out there. 

This book wasn't available in Canada for a long time, so I was excited to see it on the shelf of my local big box bookstore (I wish there was a good independent one, but I haven't found one in my city). I snapped it up.

This isn't quite as good as Deathless, and it's a slim and fast read, but that aside, it was thoroughly enjoyable. It's the story of a young woman, daughter of a Native American woman and her white husband. Her mother dies in childbirth, and the girl, who is later dubbed Snow White mockingly by her stepmother, is hidden away on her father's extensive estate. He's made all his money in mining, and is used to getting his own way.

Of course, he remarries, and Snow White and her mother do not get along. There is a mirror, but what we see reflected in it may not be what you expect.

One of the things that delighted me most about this book was that I kept getting so sunk into it that I was always pleasantly surprised when Valente wove in another fairy tale thread from the classic story. I never saw them coming, and I never felt like the story was beholden to following exactly the fairy tale outline, so when they did crop up (and it really did hew fairly closely to the classic tale), I was surprised and delighted. 

My husband wasn't crazy about this book, as he felt like the narrative voice was somewhat inconsistent, but perhaps I'm less attuned to that than he is. I do get what he's saying - the narrator changes midway through and I'm not entirely sure why, but by far and large it wasn't something that bothered me. 

I like the specificity of this happening in a growing United States, where speculators are making immense amounts of money on mines, if you have the money already to do so, and others are barely breaking even under the earth. Snow White runs away through that world becomes a miner, then takes up with a group of outlaw women who live deliberately apart from the surrounding world, trying to resist being pulled into the stories the world tells about being female.

The magic elements are intriguing too, from the mirror and what it shows of the deal the stepmother made to get where she is, and what it says both about her background and her present. The child she attempts to have, and what that child thinks of the world in which he's born and the world into which he's thrust. 

I will confess that I am not sure why the narrative switches voices halfway through, but that slight confusion aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Six-Gun Snow White, and was delighted that it was finally available. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

This is rather far afield from the books I usually read. I have a healthy skepticism about self-help books born of years working in a bookstore, seeing the vast mass of them and how few looked like they offered anything at all but platitudes. However, this was a pick for my real-life book club this month, and so I sat down and read it. It didn't hurt that a youtube video of Brene Brown (not her ubiquitous TED talk) had helped me figure out a few things during a stressful time.

So, when I sat down and read this, what did I find? I liked a lot of her message, and felt that the book was strongest when she was drawing directly on her research. However, there were a few sections in the middle where it got a little mushy, and one particularly irritating moment when I had a moment of recognition, and then very little help. 

Her main thesis (looks liked explored more thoroughly in a previous book) is that when she studied people who lived wholeheartedly, she found that they were the very people who accepted and even embraced vulnerability despite how much it gets you hurt.  And that shame was the greatest barrier to embracing vulnerability, because we think other people will see our openness as weakness.

In general, I'm on board. Her main ideas feel right, and she has a few practical ideas for staying mindful and opening yourself up. (On the other hand, most of the kinds of vulnerability she's talking about I already feel like I'm fairly good at embracing, so I would wonder how this would read to someone who is entirely vulnerability-averse.)

I am particularly wary of self-help books when they advise being more vigilant every second to make sure that you're doing this right. It's a twisted way of creating more stress - when your happiness is all your own responsibility, are you doing enough? Being enough? If you're not happy, is it really your own fault?

At least this book is striving to help people achieve a sense of innate worthiness no matter what happens in their lives, of knowing that bad things happen and you can fuck up and that does not mean you are a horrible fucked-up person. I feel like in the the last ten years, I arrived at a place of believing that I was an alright person, no matter what happened, and deserved my spot here as much as anyone does. (And furthermore, that it's not a matter of deserving, so just let that the fuck go and be here.)

(Thanks, Mom and Dad, for well equipping me to arrive at that place.)

So, in other words, I'm already on board with her general ideas. But there was this one section that annoyed me and got a little mushy. In the section on armour, she goes through what she says are the three distancing/coping techniques for vulnerability that everyone uses at some time or another, and ways to combat them. Then she goes through some less frequent ones. And one of those made me stop and go "yes. That's what I do. That's the one I use." Then I was eager to see what she'd say was a good coping technique with that particular armour.

But she really didn't. It felt like her research hadn't covered that one yet, so she could identify it, and all she said for addressing it was "when I'm doing this, I think of this one movie that contains the line I'm referencing in naming this armour, and it makes me stop."

That is...not that helpful if you've never seen the movie and are unclear on how knowing the movie would help you stop. I get that it's a deeply personal reminder that works for her but this is one place I really wanted some simultaneously broader and more specific advice like she was dispensing earlier in the book.

I don't think this book changed my life. I mean, really, it was more or less validating for several strongly held beliefs I had, so it was a welcome reminder, and gave some good advice on how I can keep working on something I'm already working on. Ways to think about it.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia McKillip

Patricia McKillip is an author I have never read before, and I am delighted to have made an acquaintance with her work. I've certainly heard of her, but she didn't cross any of my lists until io9 included her on a list of best books of the year back in 2012. Now that I've read Wonders of the Invisible World, I am interested to see what else she has to offer.

These are short stories, often with a fairy tale tinge, or a historical one. Most of the protagonists are women, with a few exceptions. What struck me the most is how many of these stories were, in different ways, about women on the (in the?) margins. Being a woman in the world is subtly included in much of what I read here.

There is a woman by the edge of a forest who keep seeing the edges of stories we know, watching from the house she's cleaning as Elaine floats by or the Wild Hunt passes. There are women almost swept away by deer in human form, and regret not going. There are selkies who wash up on a shore not at all like what they were expecting. There are women artists in the early 20th century making compromises for studio time and art shows. There are women trying to find magic in a city that tells them they have none. 

There are also a few stories about men. The one about the man who stole something from fairyland and would do anything to get it back. Or the young mam who makes his way into a substantially different (from the women's point of view) story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. (Has anyone else seen the Peter Weller movie of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, other than me?)

There are also stories of being on the margins because you're torn between worlds, between denying heritage or claiming heritage or saying fuck heritage and going out to find power yourself. 

They're beautifully written, and most have a deliberately fairy tale feel, but then within that McKillip is exploring themes of belonging, of being an outsider, with a feeling that outsiders see more, perceive more, and are more able to make their own choices whether to belong or to tell everything they are told to go to hell. 

I'm not sure what else to say - I find it hard to review short story collections because each individual story is over before I have time to think about it thoroughly. It helps when they hang together on a theme as these so obviously do.

As we all know, I love fantasy based on fairy tales, and these in large part, count, although as many are about creatures of folklore - will-o'-the-wisps, and kelpies. Much of it has to be with being on the water, or in the liminal space between water and air, shore and sea. It's that space of possibility McKillip explores to great effect.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Orfeo by Richard Powers

It took me a long time to understand this book. It's about music, but the main character is a composer who, as you learn more about his life, doesn't seem to like music very much. As one of a group of composers who don't like music very much. It baffled me and annoyed me, and I could not make it make sense.

Then I remembered.

Probably just under twenty years ago, I was in a third-year Theories of the Theatre class.  8:30 am, twice a week. It was, by far and large, a good class. But there was this one thing. We'd been talking about non-mimetic theatre, and I found it an intriguing idea, if one that I was a little baffled by. Trying to do theatre that in no way represented any aspects of the real world, most specifically anything human or animal?

Interesting. I'm willing to try it, see what it's like, even if I secretly suspect it's an effort doomed to failure. It's an interesting idea, one that can stretch your horizons as you try to imagine what non-human theatre pieces performed by humans could possibly look like. It'd be avant garde and inaccessible as hell, but there should be a space for pushing the boundaries. For every hundred pieces that are not much more than theatrical wanking, you might find one nugget of genuine gold. 

That being said, there was this one guy in that class. This one guy leaped on this the idea of non-mimetic theatre like a hungry tiger (Terrible analogy, as I immediately start referencing animals. Scarcely a non-mimetic simile in sight.) He became obsessed with the idea that not only was non-mimetic theatre an interesting or challenging idea, but that it should be THE. ONLY. THEATRE. EVER. BEING. PERFORMED.

If you were trying to do anything human, you were selling the fuck out. You weren't revolutionary, you weren't radical, you were...bourgeois. Or something. Trying to explore human emotion on stage was so utterly passe and ridiculous and emotionally and ethically bankrupt. (See, though, I thought of myself primarily as an actor, and I always had that little voice in my head telling me I liked being a human exploring humans.)

Remembering that guy, and that class and the way I'd sit there are feeling like maybe I was bourgeois, but I also wasn't fooling myself that there was one true way to do theatre, and it was to only pursue the least human aspects of it, remembering that made me understand this book.

Because the composers and directors in this book are like that guy. They're so intoxicated with the idea of doing something revolutionary that they spurn anything that isn't ideologically pure, and since ideological purity is probably unattainable, they settle for looking at music that anyone could possibly enjoy or relate to as utterly bankrupt, ignoring the revolutionary possibilities inherent in art.

That made this book fall into place. I didn't like the main character a whole lot more, but his life made more sense to me. The years he spent trying to find that music, only to hate everything he wrote if it appealed to someone else, or had an uncanny connection to to something in the real world, even while he loved making music with his young daughter at the piano more than anything, seeing it as something that he had to keep just for them. Sharing with the world would rob it of its purity.

Gods save me from people wanting purity above all. 

This composer looks back on his life while he's on the run from Homeland Security, having been caught at his fairly innocuous bioengineering hobby in his basement, and having it utterly misconstrued. We only find out gradually what he was doing with the bioengineering, but first we have to find out how he got to where he was, to the ways music shaped and warped his life, to the ways in which he wanted an eternal ideal more than he wanted imperfect life. (And the secret ways he liked imperfection.)

When it comes, the revelation is strong, particularly when it relates to his musical sense.

This is a difficult book, particularly when you don't have a heavy music theory background. I do not. But once it fell into place, it fell into place hard, and I ended up getting it in a way that up to that point, I'd thought impossible. 

Me, though, I'm good with small and personal and imperfect.

Friday, 10 June 2016

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

*Some Spoilers Below*

There are good reasons for why this review has taken me so long to write. A death in the family, exhaustion, dissertation edits. But that's not on the only reason. I've also had a hard time pinpointing what I want to say, which, when you're as verbose and opinionated as I am, is a weird position to be in.

I was trying to talk it through with my husband yesterday, and I guess it comes down to this. I found this to be a remarkably not tense book. There really weren't any parts where I was worried about the main character - and given that he's a half-goblin son in exile who ascends to an elven throne he never expected, and lots of people want him dead or deposed, that's kind of weird.

I mean, there are multiple assassination attempts in this book, and I was still never that worried for Maia, the aforementioned Goblin Emperor. One of them happens so quickly and abruptly that it was over before I had time to get stressed, which felt like how an assassination attempt would probably work in real life.

So, I was never feeling that tense, husband's reaction was that that must mean it wasn't a very good book, and I quickly disagreed. I actually really enjoyed this, but if you need tension ratcheted up to a high degree, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy character and a slow and interesting exploration of how imperial politics work, as you go with Maia through negotiating his new world, then you might like this a lot.

He was the son of the former Emperor's third (or fourth?) wife, a new wife taken too soon after the death of a beloved one, and a goblin. After Maia was born, she (and the baby) were put aside, exiled to a remote country estate. After his mother died, Maia was in the care of an angry and violent man until a freak zeppelin accident killed the emperor and his four sons in line for the throne.

(I'm just going to sit and enjoy the phrase "freak zeppelin accident" for a second.)

There are lots of good court politics here to enjoy as Maia tries to figure out who he can trust, how close he can let people get now that's he's emperor, who was behind the accident that killed his father and half-brothers, and whether or not a bridge should be built. It sounds exhausting.

It's all really well written and enjoyable. I like the characters, I like the dilemmas. So if you're patient and don't demand a plot-heavy book, I would thoroughly recommend this book. But if you're looking for fast-paced intrigue and looming sense of doom, this is not that.

One more note - Addison has done a ton of obvious work creating her world and the people in it, and in particular the nomenclature. Quite frankly, it often confused the fuck out of me. I didn't find the glossary that comes after the end of the list of characters until I was done the book, when it did no good. And every time I tried to look up a character, I couldn't find them in the list of characters. That part was frustrating. It's nice that she put the work in, but might be helpful for others to know that there is indeed a not-distinctly labelled guide to what the nomenclature means if you look hard enough.


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

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

California Bones by Greg van Eekhout

I may be a sucker for heist books. It takes some talent to put together a satisfactory heist, mix in some interesting characters, and find ways for things to go wrong while still keeping your characters competent at what they do. California Bones doesn't hit the dizzying heights of, say The Lies of Locke Lamora, but it is very solid.

It's good enough that I've been toying with adding Greg van Eekhout to my list of authors, the ones whose books I go out of my way to read, instead of just waiting for them to pop up on my various lists. So far, I've decided not, but it's close enough that I may cave later.

Of course, as soon as I mentioned the words "William Mulholland, water mage" to my husband, he immediately added this book to his list of things to read. He loves L.A. history, and I think he'll get even more out of it than I did. 

I am a big fan of books that feel thoroughly rooted in a real place and explore how it might looks with a genre overlay. Rivers of London, for example, thoroughly enthralled me. And it was one of the things I enjoyed most about California Bones. It gives a strong tactile dimension to the story, a feeling of the story taking place within a real space, just imagined slightly differently.

So, in this book, we're in the Kingdom of...Southern California? I think? Predominantly, we're in L.A., which is ruled by the Hierarch, an osteomancer of great power. (I got the feeling I should know who the Hierarch was, but I never figured it out.)  It's a dangerous place to be - if you have too much magic, but aren't one of his Inner Circle, like Mulholland or Disney, you're likely to be killed and your bones eaten.

No, literally.

The main character's magic works like that too - his father was a talented osteomancer who was adapting his child from a very young age to be able to eat and retain the powers gained from various bones of powerfully magical creatures. But he wasn't powerful enough, and was killed right in front of Daniel. 

Now grown up, his mother left him with a crime boss "uncle" (I was a little clear whether that was a literal uncle or a symbolic one.) He grew up being trained for petty crime, and eventually amassed a crew around himself that is rather good at heists. He's tried to stay out of the Hierarch's attention, knowing he'd be next on the menu if he was discovered. 

So when he hears that the Hierarch's going to do something with a sword that Daniel's father imbued with Daniel's essence, he kind of wants it out of the Hierarch's hands. So he amasses his crew to break into the Hierarch's vault. He's not trying for power, but along the way, he just might gain some. Or lose some. Or someone.

There's also an interesting subplot about the role of bureaucracy in this magical L.A., and how one of the Hierarch's nephews, unmagical, has also tried to keep his head down, but just might run afoul of an unpredictable and brutal power structure. 

The heist itself is quite satisfying, and the revelations at the end interesting. As I said, almost good enough to get it on my authors list. I'm still undecided. But this was quite a lot of fun.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Book Lists: Old Gods, New Clothes

Still creating lists for a directed reading group, and will probably be doing so for a while. This time, I asked for suggestions about old gods in a modern age.

The List:

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (of course)
Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
Flame of Olympus by Kate O'Hearn
Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison
Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams

Any additions?

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

I sat down to read Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring because it is on a CBC Books List of 100 Novels That Make You Proud To Be A Canadian. I'm working my way through it, slowly, although it is annoying that it skews so heavily towards the recent. And there are certain other themes that I am less than happy about.

However, that is a story for another review, because Brown Girl in the Ring does not fit into those troublesome themes. It is an urban fantasy set in a Toronto that has been abandoned by the powers that be, as the city government moved out to the 'burbs, and the police abandoned the city. People still live there, and society has shrunk in population, but not necessarily in connection.

The main character, Ti-Jeanne, lives with her grandmother and her new baby, on the experimental farm in Toronto, where her grandmother is a local wise woman, dispensing herbal medicine, since allopathic medicine is not available within Toronto itself. Ti-Jeanne's mother left her at a young age, and the father of her child is not someone she thinks would be able to take on being a father.

The magic in this book is largely through Afro-Caribbean sources, the idea of being ridden by spirits or Gods, being chosen by one in particular, and carrying their gifts. Count Zero by William Gibson does much the same things with computers, but I prefer Hopkinson's version, because it feels like it comes from a deeper familiarity with the source material, but even more so because there is a deep tactileness that Gibson lacks.

Because the loa in Count Zero are virtual, they are interesting, but not as connected to the world around them, whereas here is a very strong sense of touch, of feel, of presence and materiality to the world of Ti-Jeanne, and her first tentative steps into the world of the supernatural.

The world of Toronto walks carefully around the power of crime boss Rudy, an older man with access to his own supernatural forces. Here we get into the creation and exploitation of zombies, along with a bowl full of very bad magic indeed.

Into this intrudes the wider world, which is still technological in ways Toronto itself can no longer be. The prime minister (or premier? I forget) needs a new heart, and all hearts these days come from pigs. As a re-election strategy, she announces she'll only take a human heart, an effort to reintroduce organ donation. Of course, when a heart is not forthcoming easily from a human, her campaign manager hires Rudy to make sure a suitable heart, with a suitable blood type, and a suitable death becomes miraculously available in time.

Rudy goes to Ti-Jeanne's former lover to perform this task, and so we come full circle. It's a book about betrayal, supernatural forces, and unexpected connections and family where you least expect it.

I can't say this is the best book I've read in a while, but it certainly is a solid one. The tangibility of the prose, the integration of fantasy into a Toronto that is still recognizable despite the changes, the signs of a world trying to find its own rules when law has left, it's all very well done. Ti-Jeanne herself is a complex, sometimes frustrating main character, trying to figure out what having a baby means, what love means, what family means, and why she keeps dreaming of death.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Book Lists: Emotional Pain

While I was writing the review for The Sea Thy Mistress, I asked for suggestions of books that deal with extreme emotional pain. At least one of the answers was facetious, but all in all, there are some good suggestions below, including one that was for a very bad handling that my husband thought no one should read.

Books about Emotional Pain:

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler (this was the one Bill said no one should read)
everything by Elizabeth Bear
Good Grief (not sure of the author)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Curious George
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold (and all the Miles books)
The Felix Castor books by Mike Carey
I Miss You, I Miss You! by Peter Pohl

Any suggestions for other books to add to the list?

Wonderful suggestions that have come in:

Washington Square by Henry James
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Sea Thy Mistress by Elizabeth Bear

I was doing a google search for an image of the cover of this book, and when I mistyped "thy" as "they," google helpfully decided to search "sean the mistress" instead. Thanks, Google! 

I'm trying to think how to describe what Elizabeth Bear has accomplished in this book, because it's really something quite extraordinary. I find when I read a lot of characters who are torturing themselves for some reason or another, I get frustrated. The author isn't doing enough to make it convincing why - it's like getting that close to that much pain is insanely difficult, which of course it is. However, keeping up a remove pushes those characters further away from the reader. It keeps their pain opaque and distant.

That is not what happens here. Bear takes the readers right inside Cathoair's pain, and stays there. She shows us friends feeling helpless, why he makes the decisions he does, the horrifying pact and its effects on his body and emotions. I can't imagine how it was to write. It's painful to read, yet in staying with that pain, I understand it better than I have before.

I have not read the second book in the series, but this one takes up after Cathoair's lover, Muire, has gone into the sea, become one with the sea, a goddess, and helped rejuvenate a dying world. Things are growing. People are spreading out. The sea leaves Cathoair's child on the beach for him to raise, and the world slowly starts to knit.

There are a number of stories in this book, but Cathoair's arc, as he hurts even as the world heals. It was bought at the cost of the woman he loved, and he has never forgiven her for being able to leave him, even if he understands.

He has been broken down in so many ways, over so long a history. It's brutal, at times, but it's never distant. There is never the comfort of remove. When someone offers him a deal to save someone else he loved and understand why he might take it.

The world that frames this pain is still striking - a mix of technology and magic, influenced by Norse mythology, with magic swords and animal/people hybrids (moreaus). There are angels who wield the swords, who guard the land and the people, but not in a light or pretty way. There are so many people who love Cathoair, including his son, and want to help him heal, but cannot touch the wounds left so deeply.

The other characters are incredibly well drawn as well, and there is so much mutual hurt and pain, and Bear conveys the complexity between horrific acts and broken people and savage caring so very well. These are moments when you think healing cannot possibly happen, and maybe those are the only moments when it can.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie

I picked up Half of a Yellow Sun because it appeared on a list of best books of the 21st century so far. I've enjoyed the books on that list, worthy nominees all of them, many of them difficult, full of struggle for character and reader, with stories that are important and must be told. It's good I have these breaks from genre fiction, which tends to be lighter. (Not always.)

There is no doubt that this is a powerful book, a difficult book, and one that I am glad I read. It's not a fun read, not reading for relaxation or distraction. This is the type of book that evokes despair and struggle, even as it is more than just despair.

I've been struggling with this review for two days, because quite frankly I'm having trouble grappling with how I feel about it. When it comes down to it, I want to be fully behind it, to laud it to the skies, be enthusiastic, to tell everyone it's a book they need to read.

And you know what? That might be true. It might be the kind of book that everyone should read. It has depth and complexity, striking characters and difficult situations. It's not a fun book, but not every book should be fun. Some should be hard. Some should make you uncomfortable. So maybe you need to read this. Maybe I did. I don't regret doing so.

The problem is that I'm having trouble selling enthusiasm because I'm not feeling it. Parts of it are so ugly that I genuinely struggled, while recognizing that war is just this ugly, and so the treatment of it should be. I struggled with the rape scene being mostly there to spark emotion and difficulty in the young male character. It wasn't that it was badly done, or unrealistic. It's just that I've read so many rape scenes recently, and I've been having real difficulty when rape scenes are included solely to tell us something about the men, (It's never pleasant, but some depictions bother me more than others. Also, I know it's partly because I've been noticing it this year, but damn. I feel like going back through the books that I've read in the last year and counting how many have included a rape, either well done or appallingly so. (The answer is, out of around 130 books, 20 have included a rape that happens during the action of the book.))

(It's not done appallingly badly here, it's just that it's only here to make the young male character uncomfortable with what he's capable of.)

I am still having difficulty knowing what to write. Let's go back to a synopsis and see if that helps.

This books takes place during the time when Biafra declared itself a separate nation from Nigeria, and the war that ensued. The book starts before the secession, but I'll use what side people ended up on for nationalities. There are three viewpoint characters - Ugwu, the houseboy of a Biafran radical academic, Olanna, the lover and later wife of the academic, and a white Englishman who comes to Nigeria and becomes involved with Olanna's twin sister. (The academic and twin sister are important too, but we're not given time inside their heads. We see what they do, not why.)

We see the years leading up to the declaration of independence, what people think of the world they live in and the world they would like to build. That shifts, gradually, into the world as it becomes as they slowly are ground away by the war. Adichie shows up desperation and generosity, hand in hand, as the nation they want to build crumbles.

The role of colonialism and British rule on the way the war arises and is continued is keenly perceptive - Richard continually fights against visiting journalists just looking for stories of African brutalities without context, packaging a story that will make people cluck their teeth but feel no connection or responsibility.

It's a very good book, but it's also a very difficult one. I am still grappling with my feelings about it, and perhaps that itself is a good sign.