Monday, 29 May 2017

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

This may be my first truly passionate book crush of the year. There have been other books I’ve liked a lot, granted, but this is as close as I’ve been to swooning this year, and definitely the book so far that has inspired me to start button-holing people and telling them that there’s this book they just have to read.

This is a little baffling, in a way, because there are ways in which I’m not quite sure what to make of the book as a whole. Part of why I want other people to read it is so that we can sit down and discuss and I can hash out all these theories. But I do know that, fully understanding it or not, I love it quite a lot.

I have never read any Joyce Carol Oates before, but this will most definitely not be the last. I was just delighted and intrigued by the whole book. By the end, strangely, it had come to remind me just a little of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, only vastly less confusing and much, much more readable. Where they are similar is in their amassing, in a large book, a truly staggering range of Americana of the time period each was discussing, from the very weird to the horrifyingly mundane, to the most out-sized characters of history.

Whereas Pynchon was looking at very early Americana, Oates roots her story in the early 20th century, in 1905 and 1906 in Princeton, New Jersey. Woodrow Wilson is a character, as is Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and even Sherlock Holmes, as well as a whole raft of wealthy socialites and philanthropists who live in town. (This is why I need to talk about it - it’s not that I don’t get it, it’s that there’s so much that even with what I’ve grasped, I’m very sure there are things I’m missing.)

It’s also a gothic novel, through and through, and the supernatural is strangely mixed into the history. There are suggestions of vampires or demons preying on these wealthy white people, starting with Annabel Slade running away during her wedding ceremony with a mysterious Eastern European man and then disappearing. There are also plagues of snakes, statues of humans, stories of horrible orgies in an underworld, and all of these are laid in so subtly that at times it’s hard to tell if they’re supposed to be real within this fiction, or just the output of unstable minds.

But here is where it is genius. Beside all these manifestations of The Curse, the actual every day curses of early 20th century society exist, and Oates keeps drawing attention to them so deftly that it never feels overdone, but often feels more horrific than the horror. From racism to class warfare to domestic abuse and further, these curses are laid alongside the manifestations that the rich white upper class is willing to define as evil - that is to say, those aspects that affect them in ways they would have scarcely imagined possible.

The book meanders, sometimes, due to the huge scope, but I was pretty much always enthralled, and the final confession that haunts the last pages (the version of the book I have ends on page 667, which feels delightfully cheeky) pulls both types of horrors together, and roots one firmly in the other.

Oates is trying something so audacious here, and she sticks the landing. This is strong candidate for one of my top 10 books of the year.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart A Doorway is short, but there is really quite a lot packed into the shorter form novella here. It's a murder mystery, in addition to being a meditation on what happens to those children who go through doors to magical lands, and an examination of the hierarchies of outsiderdom. That this book doesn't feel like it's giving short shrift to any of those is really quite remarkable, and I'd strongly recommend this to anyone - it's not going to take you long to read, and there is some treasure here.

For the plot, Nancy has recently returned to the “real” world from her particular world of mystery and magic - in her case, an underworld that placed great value on stillness and silence. Her parents worry about her, and she is packed off to a boarding school to recover, a place where they’re assured she’ll find herself after whatever trauma she had experienced.

It’s actually a boarding school run by Eleanor, an older woman whose door is still open, but which she can’t go through, for a number of reasons. It’s there to both reacclimatize children and young people like Nancy to the world while not asking them to deny or abjure their experiences.

Once there, we get into a catechism of other worlds, along axes of Good and Evil and Nonsense and Logic. There are more minor variations, but these categorizations are supposed to help the returned work through their experiences.

Notable, however, this mostly comes into play as we discover that even though everyone at the school has been through a similar experience (and most are desperately looking for or waiting for their door to reopen so they can go home), that does not mean that they all support each other. There is every bit of teenage hierarchy that you’d expect, as those from candy cloud Nonsense lands find those from dark and dangerous Logic Lands to be suspect. And vice versa.

The suspicion grows when Nancy’s first roommate at the school turns up dead, missing her hands. Despite common experience, most people at the school are looking for differences, for ways to prove that they alone are the ones who are worthy of a return to their lands, while the others are obviously defective. There are some subtle things worked in here about division and contempt between those who should find common ground.

There are also varieties of gender identity and sexual orientation that I haven’t seen a lot of in fantasy, and better yet, while important to the characters, these are not the only or even necessarily defining features of their personalities. Nancy is asexual, and Kade, the boy who becomes her closest friend at the school, is transgender. I’d be hesitant to say it’s well done, as I’m not part of either group represented, but from my limited perspective, it feels well done, integral without being the only thing you know about that character.

As corpses mount, we end up with only a couple of possible suspects, but at least my first guess was wrong, and the answer, when it comes, is satisfying. This is a melancholy yet joyful book, and while I may have trouble explaining exactly why I’d say that, it’s true nonetheless.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne Valente

When I started to read this book, just a few weeks ago, I had a mother. By the time I finished it, I didn’t have a mother anymore. I’d been orphaned at age 39 just as surely as any of the children in any of the fairy tales that Valente is riffing on, often brilliantly, in this book.

And yet this book will remain forever entangled with the last few weeks in my memory. I started reading it on the train to be there for my Mother’s surgery, surgery that didn’t have precisely the outcome we wanted, but which still was an answer that gave us a lot of hope and years.

I read about Coyote in a small-town America high school, about a detective who finds which story you belong in, and many other stories as I sat in the hospital room in between fetching warm blankets to keep my mother warm and take care of her, while my sister tucked her in and washed her face. I read about a demon expelled from Hell to New England and the struggle for the Bride of the World as we started to think about chemo and radiation, how we would be there for her and her new partner through difficult times.

And although this review is going to be largely about what I’ve gone through, let me say that these stories were the perfect damned accompaniment, entertaining and thought-provoking.

I returned home to my husband reading a brilliant Handmaid’s Talesque take on a Nuclear America with McCarthy as president, and a world above the clouds where words were not the words they meant. Another place where wolves stalked the streets of Brooklyn

Then I didn’t read it for about a week, sinking back into my life and getting used to the idea that things had changed and there were new things we had to deal with. And those themes resonated with these stories.

Then, a week and a half ago, my sister called with the news that my mother had just had a major stroke, and for a couple of reasons, the stroke unit could do none of the near-miraculous things they can do for strokes these days. To get there as soon as we could. I got there just as she was sliding into unconsciousness - I think she saw me, but I’ll never know for sure. We were told that in 48 hours, her brain would “declare itself” and we’d find out if she was going to ever regain any function, or if we were going down the path of palliative care. We were gently reminded the latter was more likely.

I read more of these stories while sitting in vigil with my husband in her room, trading off every five or six hours with my sister and my mother’s significant other. The world took on a strange unreality that comes from being detached from the passage of time or usual sleeping or eating patterns as I read about the Bronte siblings’ inner life made manifest. I read while we were waiting, after we’d started to make plans, if palliative care was the way we were going, to take her home for her last days. I was numb.

I had just started reading “Silently and Very Fast,” a story I’d always wanted to read, something that is a little bit Pinocchio and a whole lot unique, about an emerging AI, when her breathing changed and I called for a nurse, and the nurse asked if my sister was on her way yet, and when I asked if I should call her, she said yes, and I did, and at the end, we never made it to palliative care. The vigil didn’t last until my other sister had made her way back from New Zealand. In the space of the story when I put it down, while one sister was in the air, and the other sister was driving herself and my mother’s partner to the hospital as fast as she could, my mother died.

I’ve been witness to both my parents dying, now, and other than the part of me that wants to scream at the sky for the unfairness of it all, I am struck, again, by how nebulous that moment is. It’s not like in the movies or literature, where the moment of death is obvious. It's not that there’s a switch turning off. Both times, it’s been a little unclear and indistinct. You can put your finger on the minute or couple of minutes, but not on the second. I’d like to see that truth, someday, in something I read.

I finished this book after my mother’s life was suddenly, and so unfairly, over, still sleep deprived and in pain, with that melancholy story of the boundaries between self and other, between machine and human, easing my own passage into the land of grief, where I’ll be for a while. The answers in "Silently and Very Fast" were unexpected and so right, just as I was going through something so wrong. Weirdly, that fit.

There are not many books that would have been good companions for this voyage that I never ever wanted to take. Most would have sat wrongly, or hurt. But not this one. Between her language, and her stories, Catherynne Valente’s voice was with me in stress and in pain and in quiet moments of waiting and hurting, and it was the right voice for that moment.

Monday, 22 May 2017

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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

This book was recommended to me by Lisa

I was reading this book in the kind of circumstances that, perhaps, did a disservice to the book itself. I was distracted and upset, and read in short bursts. I wish I'd had the time and the opportunity to sit down and let long sections of A God in Ruins seep through me. As it was, I did really enjoy it, but I also felt like I might have loved it had the circumstances been a bit different. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm looking forward to rereading it, and the first time was enough to definitely warrant a second read.

The second thing that comes to mind is to contrast this book to the ones we've been reading the last few months in my science fiction and fantasy bookclub, all of which have centered around books written by people with direct experience of war. It's been interesting to think about similarities and differences between these authors, and differences that exist between them and authors who write about war but haven't experienced it.

It's funny, though, because Kate Atkinson's book doesn't feel as far afield as do some of the other books we could think of that valorized war and gave a feeling of purpose or story to battle. Through the sections of the book where Teddy is flying his fighting missions in the air to Germany, whether he lives or dies seems very arbitrary. He is lucky, but little else.

So, what's the book about? I'm thinking about how much to say, because this is a book where the discovery is part of the journey. It's the story of Teddy's life, is a safe way to start. Both his life during the war, and his life after, when he settles down, marries, and eventually has a grown-up daughter who is remarkably selfish, and two grandchildren who love him. As we dance back and forth in time, we get to see why some of those things occur, but I have to say that even when we find out the root of Viola's issue with her father, she is still a character that I just want to throttle a good portion of the time. Although I think maybe that's the point.

It's a life lived quietly, after the war, with huge domestic disruptions, but largely unaffected by interactions with the politics of the greater world. There are ways in which it reminded me of Jo Walton's My Real Children, and I hope I'm not giving too much away by making that comparison. The characters all felt so real, even when they were (or particularly when they were) ones I wanted to strangle.

At the end of his life, is Teddy the god in ruins? You'll have to read and see, but the title itself led me down many paths while I was reading, comparing it to this idea and the other, but I really don't want to say much more. This book is much less overtly the sort of something else that the companion novel, Life After Life, was. And yet it's there, and when it became apparent I was moved, but not as moved as I was by the relationships Teddy had with others in his life.

I do want to go back to the book when I'm bringing a better me to the experience. Some day.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

It feels like it has been a long time since I've sunk down so deep into a book that when I come back up, I am dazed and the real world feels a little less tangible than the fictional one I've just been in. Partly, it's because a lot of my reading has been interrupted quite a bit, but that full immersion has been a bit elusive.

But then I picked up Lagoon. And even though I read it on lunch hours, and once, on a relatively short bus ride to meet my husband for dinner, this was the first book in a while that pulled me in so hard it was a physical wrench to take my attention from the page back to the world around me. I realized it on that bus ride, when my husband asked if I was okay, because I was unusually quiet, and I realized it was because I wasn't entirely back in the world yet.

It's both disconcerting and wonderful, to find a book that sucks me in so deeply, and so I feel fairly confident in recommending this book to everyone who wants an interesting and challenging look at first contact, and the difficulties it would bring to a very human world, and very specifically to daily life and culture in Nigeria.

We start in the ocean, where the aliens have just landed, and start to extend certain overtures to the creatures they find there. Those creatures may or may not be hospitable to the humans who have polluted their waters. From there, we emerge onto land, to the three main characters: a marine biologist struggling with having a husband who has recently converted to a form of what feels like Pentecostal Christianity and newly started to try to subjugate her will to his; a soldier beaten up from trying to stop a rape by members of his unit; and a rapper just finished a large show in Lagos.

The three are swept into the sea and eventually returned to shore with a fourth, an alien that has taken on a women's appearance, named Ayodele by the marine biologist. She needs to talk to the president of Nigeria, but the city is in relative chaos from the weird sonic booms and tidal waves. The book is comprised of several treks across the city, along with confrontations surrounding the alien woman, with some trying to kidnap her for commercial gain, others to find visibility in a changing world, and for others to find out how Christian these aliens are.

Much of the book is about the different ways people would react to alien encounters, and the specific ways in which culture mediates that, particular in assumptions about gender. It feels like too often when we have alien contact in science fiction, it takes place in an Any Culture, which actually means American culture, just assumed to be near universal. Not only moving the locus of contact to Nigeria, but also strongly engaging with how reactions might be affected by both individual personalities and larger social trends, means this is very strong, and sometimes uncomfortable.

And then it takes an interesting turn, one that seems to be present in the other of Okorafor's books I've read so far, when what is science fiction also starts to incorporate some elements of fantasy. These two genres are not easily extricable in her work, and the resulting melange is really neat. Because while the aliens have been altering things under the waves, there are things under the surface of the land that are older and in at least one case, more hungry. I don't want to spoil more than that.

Readjusting to the world around me after pulling myself out with an almost physical wrench was a difficult thing to do every time. This book sucked me in deep, and I hope it does the same for you.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors - April 28

In Search Of...The Amber Room

By jeanyfan - Own work, Public Domain,

All Strange Attractors Recaps 

 After opening with a scene that was about my character's backstory, we moved on to the main mission. (I'll discuss that scene in more depth at the end, because it works nicely into my character musings.)  The Admonitories, those behind TimeWatch from the far future, gave the group the mission of rescuing the Amber Room on the night it was likely consumed by fire during aerial bombing of the Nazis in Konigsberg.

We popped into the Amber Room itself just as the bombing started, which seemed safest, rather than trying to infiltrate the castle in more conventional ways. Of course, that sounded like a good idea until we got there and the reverberations inside the room drove our resident audio expert to his knees in a rush of sadness and despair. Two others of the group were similarly affected, while Millie and Peter hung on (Millie by repeated one of her affirmations to herself over and over - more about that later.)

They were able to set up the equipment they needed to steal the room and get the hell out of there with the Amber Room to 1976, but once there, TimeWatch was in upheaval, because the removed Amber Room was leaking temporal energy all over the place, polluting the timeline. The Admonitories recommended amputating this timeline to prevent contamination, but ranking officer of the present, Heinlein, said that the team would make one attempt first to go back and figure out what had corrupted the fabric of the Amber Room and caused the weird and destructive harmonics. 

Out of several options of when to go, the team opted for just before the first time the Amber Room was connected to violence, which means we ended up passing up a nifty opportunity for Walter to share trade secrets with Theremin. We also missed meeting Rasputin, in favour of visiting the court of Catherine the Great, around the time the Comte de St.-Germain was helping her perfect the Amber Room. If the Room was still resonating bad time energy then, we could probably recalibrate it to mute it in the future.

We gained entry to the court when Peter used his conman skills to establish himself as the Comte de St.-Germain, and Walter set to work on the Room. The negative energy was there but much fainter, and he was able to trace the source of the energy, not to the war and the Nazis, but to 2024. It seems that the energy had been radiating backwards (maybe forwards too) through time, and might have contributed to some of the worst aspects of Russian history over the previous couple hundred of years.

Just then, the real Comte de St.-Germain arrived. Peter blustered off to expose him as a con, and discovered that the "real" Comte was another time traveller - and not only that, a man who had schooled him in the rudiments of being a conman in his own timeline. They fenced verbally for a while, then Peter signalled to Gerald to take the "Comte" away on his mark, making him disappear as if Peter's Comte had performed magic.

Once Gerald had the Comte on his way to TimeWatch jail, the "real" Comte warned Gerald against letting the TimeWatch have the Amber Room, telling him that he was there to defang it himself to make sure TimeWatch couldn't corrupt it. Gerald was already ready to believe the worst of TimeWatch, which is going to get interesting when that comes up against Millie's True Believerness.

Back in Catherine the Great's court, they fixed the room, discovering as they did that putting it out of tune conformed to the "real" Comte's plans - he'd been telling at least part of the truth after all, or so it seemed.

At the very end, we flashed forward to 2024, where Vladimir Putin was trying to activate the room (it hadn't been destroyed apparently, just hidden until it was unveiled as the "new" version.) The alterations having worked, the room did nothing. Putin was furious - and it seemed that our young compatriot Jack, there and many years older, was disappointed as well.

Character Thoughts

The episode opened up with a little glimpse of a pivotal moment in Millie's life, the moment where she acted to help end her timeline (using, as it turned out, a nifty bit of Nikola Tesla lore) after one of her siblings had committed a murder-suicide, a term that was so foreign to her timeline it didn't exist anymore. He'd worked for their version of TimeWatch, and the rest of their siblings were starting to worry that Millie was beginning to sound as erratic as him.

Millie, in her World of Tomorrow-type timeline, lived with her six creche/podmates - none of them were biologically related, but these were the people who were both her siblings and lovers, without any clear distinction between the two categories. We saw the bed she was leaving with her five other siblings all tangled up, with a soft computer voice waking them up by telling them each that they were loved and today was going to be a great day.

This was a fantastic moment of the GM building on something I'd written down during character creation, and then me being able to build on top of that in return. I'd mentioned something about how she started her days after having helped destroy her own timeline by saying affirmations to herself in the mirror before going out the door, fully convinced (or so she thinks) of the goodness of TimeWatch and the necessity of what she did. Rob built on that to root those affirmations back in the timeline she'd come from, and gave me specific words that she'd heard.

And then, although I don't know if this would have been apparent, when we were rolling to see if we'd crumple under the crushing sadness of the Amber Room, and I succeeded in fighting it off, I kept mouthing "today is going to be another great day" to myself to keep her fighting and relatively upbeat.

I think she does say these things to herself every morning. But I wonder if she can ever bear to add one of the other lines: "You are loved."

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

I finished this book over a week ago, before I was away and busy and stressed for a week. I left myself just one note in the draft file for the book review, and it reads: "oh my god, having characters that do not care about anything is not interesting!"
That...pretty much sums up how I feel about this book as I try to recapture my thoughts after a week away, through a haze of extreme exhaustion.   The world is not really interesting enough to capture attention when you have very little happening in the book, and a main character who doesn't seem deeply attached to anything - well, maybe to the one woman he helped kill (and dear lord, women are another problem in these books, which I'll get to in a moment), but other than that? Not very damn much.

In some ways, this feels like a template for the unfortunate pattern that George R.R. Martin has fallen into, of having people constantly travelling and not getting where they're going, with things coming up along the way that less advance the plot than they just slow the characters down. But at least I feel like Martin's characters fucking want something!

I'm going to digress to roleplaying. Years ago, we were starting a Firefly game. Since a previous Firefly game we'd played had had problems with everyone wanting to play a Jayne-like character - rough and tough and not really caring about a lot - Bill, from the start of the character creation, had one requirement.

We could create any character we wanted. But we had to have something we couldn't walk away from. Something we cared about. Something that he could use to engage us. (Of course, none of us played Jayne and perhaps gave Bill more caring-about-things hooks than he'd anticipated, but the question is excellent.)

So I'd like to pose the same question to Severian, the main character of this book: what can't you walk away from?

It's not the torturer's guild - he walks away from everything he's ever known
It's not the people he travels with - after being briefly captured, he seems little to care if he ever sees them again
It's not the woman he professes to love now - he had pretty much the same reaction when he was captured and did not try to find her again
It's not really the woman he professed to love then - he does run off and put himself into danger when he thinks she's alive, but given that she's really truly dead, it doesn't give him much to not walk away from now.

And most fucking notably, it's not the revolutionary that we are told that Severian is deeply, fundamentally attached to. We're told over and over that Severian believes in Vodalus' cause. (Even though we, as readers, are never let in on what that cause is, what goals they'd like to achieve, or what tactics they're using to get there.) But then Severian meets Vodalus in person, more or less by accident (because seeking him out would be too goddamn active, no doubt). And within the course of a day, decides, you guessed it, he doesn't really care about Vodalus after all.

This is not good storytelling. Or good drama.

Good drama comes from people wanting something badly. Good storytelling is bringing the reader into that want through a well-paced set of events. It can take a long time to come to fruition, or happen almost immediately. BUT IT SHOULD NOT BE ABSENT.

I don't care how "realistic" people think this may be. Real life does not necessarily make good drama! And most people I know in real goddamn life do, in fact, want something! It may not be galaxy-changing, but they want something.

I'm so frustrated, and I know the next book was also nominated for a Hugo, and so I will read it even though I may not want to. But come the fuck on.

Oh, and I said I'd mention the women - they're terrible. Cardboard at best, and all of them, whether they hate, love, or are indifferent to, Severian, sleep with him. (I'm serious - it happens at least once with each kind.)  Look, this is how bad the writing about the women is:

"Jolenta shrugged, making the simple movement seem an exquisite ceremony. “I ran away too.” She cupped her huge breasts with her hands. “But I don’t think I’m well suited to running, do you?"

I rest my fucking case.

What these books need is not such a terrible way of writing women, and a main character who fucking wants something. Is that really so hard?

Friday, 28 April 2017

I'm Not Stiller by Max Frisch

This is a strange book to explain. It starts off feeling a litttle bit like The Trial, but then what initially seems to be another story of someone prosecuted for goodness-knows-what by a system that cares little for explaining itself, then becomes something quite other.

Stiller, you see, is missing. The main character and narrator, while on a train in Switzerland, is recognized by someone as the missing Stiller, having disappeared seven years earlier. The man then taken into custody insists that he is not Stiller, but everyone around him seems to take it for granted that he is.

It doesn't matter how many times the narrator protests, and tells wild stories of his life in the United States, Mexico, and South America. It doesn’t matter that his dental records don’t quite seem to match those of the lost Stiller. His wife seems quite sure he is Stiller, his brother, with whom he was never close, seems convinced he is Stiller, the state and the state’s prosecutor seem convinced that he is Stiller.

Yet, he assures us, as he assures everyone else, that he isn’t Stiller. And it starts to become convincing, even though I’m pretty sure there’s an indicative sentence on the very first page that suggests how seriously we ought to take the narrator’s claims. He certainly doesn’t seem to be much of anyone else, with a name that passes through maybe once, but is not insisted upon.

We find out about the missing Stiller’s life from the distance of the narrator learning about it and relating it with a fair amount of contempt to the audience. And it does feel like maybe this is a case of mistaken identity.

(I’m sure this is all sounding terribly serious - this book was frequently quite funny. Very dry wit, but I laughed more than once.)

And then it starts to become more and more apparent, that the narrator is Stiller, except that he himself feels himself so changed that that name no longer applies. In that, he even seems to convince others, even as he is pressured into admitting his identity legally.

But how much do we change who we are? Particularly when it comes to our relationships with other human beings - do we really change in how we interact with our spouses? Or how we see ourselves in relation to them? Stiller/notStiller is derisive of how Stiller treated his wife, and adamant about how he would do better. But will he? Is it even possible? If you haven’t seen the person you are sharing your life with as a fully human being, can you suddenly start? And is it enough to say you’ve changed?

These are all the issues this book is grappling with, and although I haven’t been reading a lot of older mainstream fiction/classics recently, I was intrigued by this one. It’s a little sterile at times, but there’s something there that may not be comforting, but is intriguing.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

I have to admit, I struggled with this book. When I first picked it up, the writing style intruded itself too much on my notice, particularly when Nawaz stacked similes, giving us several options for what something was like at a time. Then I put it down for a while, and as often happens, when I came back, the writing had faded into the background (I only find it tends to continue to intrude when it is really REALLY bad.)

From there, I started liking the book a lot more. It's not an easy read, as we deal with two young women who lose both their parents, deal with the teenage pregnancy of one of them and anorexia of the other, culminating in the sister who struggled with anorexia dying of a heart attack in her thirties. (This isn't a spoiler, it's in the first chapter or so.)

It's a lot to deal with, and it's not unrealistic, but once emotions start to run high, after the two sisters are on their own, they just keep...running so high. High verging into shrill. There really aren't leavening moments of the two of them dealing with each other with kindness or compassion. There's no question they love each other, but it's such heightened emotion and fear and pain all the time, and I don't know. It's perhaps not unrealistic, but goddamn is it tiring.

Then we get into the part of the book where Beena, the surviving sister, starts treating her sister Sadhana's heart attack like a goddamned murder mystery, and I started to lose all patience. Let me qualify that. I entirely believe that, enshrouded in grief and guilt, she wants to find a reason for her sister's death. I don't have a real problem with her reacting that way. I do have a problem that everyone else seems to find that totally logical! She keeps saying to people "heart attacks don't just happen" - that someone must have scared her sister or angered her sister, brought on the heart attack. AND EVERYONE SEEMS TO AGREE WITH HER!

You need a counterpoint, a voice of sanity somewhere in this to say "you know what? Heart attacks sometimes do just happen. Particularly when there's a clear record of her having a weak heart." Somewhere, please god.

But then, it's worse, because not only do Beena and all the other characters seem to believe this, the author seems to as well, because by the end of the book, by damn, we find out who caused the heart attack, because heart attacks don't just happen.

Add that to Beena's irrational belief that her son's father is none of her son's business, and her overreaction every time her son is interested in finding out more about him. This is after a decade and a half of her she never telling her son what happened, but somehow just expecting that shrieking at him that it's none of his business should be good enough. Again, I know some people would have that kind of reaction, but Beena's the viewpoint character, and she's just kind of...unpleasant. We have people telling us she's a nice person - her son, anyway, and the guy she's been dating for a while, but really, there's very little evidence of her being someone you'd want to spend any time around.

There's evidence she loves her family, and would take care of them, and has, but she wields that like an edged weapon and lashes out, and man, I do not demand that main characters be entirely likeable, but there were plenty of times I found it actively uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking to be in her head.

Which maybe is what the author is going for, but what the book ended up making me want to do was set up strong boundaries and set it calmly down.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

number9dream by David Mitchell

*Minor Spoilers Below*

I can smugly say that at this moment, I've read all of David Mitchell's novels there are. That is, except for the one I'll never get to read because it's part of this ridiculous novels-for-the-future project, which frustrates me with every part of my being, because I can't truly understand what possible benefit it endows to have books first read 100 years from now. No way that they're hurt by being read before now. I mean, they'll probably be hilarious in unintentional ways, as the world will have moved on, and maybe still good enough to stand the test of time, but as a voracious reader, the idea that those books are written and I will never read them, unless I believe in reincarnation or that immortality is coming far sooner than the best guesses? It makes me very stressed out and angry.

I mean, fuck your voracious fans of the present, right?

I think I have to go away and calm down for a second.

Okay, I've had lunch. I don't think this is any less of a bad idea, but let's get back to number9dream, the last book I had to read before I'd read all of Mitchell's books. I am a huge fan of his works, particularly as it becomes more and more obvious how they intertwine. With that said, it's interesting to go back to an earlier book where that idea is I think still there, but definitely in an earlier stage. We see here the playing with genre, although perhaps less obviously as in some of his other works. We see how stories interweave. And in this one, we get a rather enjoyable weaving between "reality" and many different kinds of dreams, from fantasies, daydreams, nightmares, fiction, memories, etc. I could go back and taxonomize them all, but you get the general idea.

We are with Eiji Miyake, who has recently come to Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never met. His mother was an abandoned mistress when she became pregnant with twins. She left Eiji and his twin sister Anju with their grandmother and likewise deserted them. Having lost Anju as well, Eiji is cast adrift, searching desperately for the father whose finding he thinks would ground him.

We watch him storm in in a cyberpunk montage, and encounter the much more mundane repulsion by his father's legal wife. We read memories of the past, nightmares of the present, and possibilities of the future. Dreaming is woven through as Eiji is drawn accidentally into a Yakuza power struggle. (At least, I'm pretty sure that all actually happens, but there are moments of the book when I wasn't entirely positive.)

I really enjoyed the shifting genres, as well as the little symbols that separated sections and challenged me to try to put  name to different kinds of dreams, as well as the black diamond of reality. I have also read a number of books recently where a young man is determined that finding his father will answer all his questions - it is heartening that this was one book where the young man realized that it was perhaps not his father but his mother that held the promise of a renewed relationship. Most of the other books have had the father as the be-all and end-all.

I have no idea how accurately this depicts Tokyo, but I enjoyed this fictionalized version. But if there were connections to Mitchell's other books, I wasn't putting them together. (Maybe to Ghostwritten?)

Monday, 10 April 2017

Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I'm already a little ways into the second book, The Claw of the Conciliator, as I got the two volumes as part of an omnibus for last month's book club. I had never read any Gene Wolfe before, but I'd seen his name come up repeatedly on the list of Hugo nominees in the past, the full list of which I'm still trying to work my way through. (I think I'm up to 46%!)

I think I sort of knew that it was an odd blend of science fiction and fantasy, if you look at it from the perspective of an era far in the future well in decline, with the scientific artifacts of a spacefaring society acting almost as magic for the people who have long ago come to see them as immutable facts of life and not as discoveries.

So, one book in, and where do I stand? I want to go on and read more - not because the first book filled me with enthusiasm and adoration, but rather because it was stand-offish without being downright rude. It didn't let me into its secrets or the stories behind the stories, keeping me at less than the level of knowledge of the main character, but it wasn't so opaque that it began to grate.

But still, the book is less than forthcoming. And weirdly paced. And kind of short, despite its length. A lot like the beginning of a story, but definitely not anything like an end. You might be able to make an argument for the middle. (Literally - the story just truncated in the middle of a scene with no real sense of rising action over the preceding pages, and certainly no denouement or resolution. It feels, in fact, like one book was hacksawed in two rather haphazardly, and no effort was made to alter the narrative structure so it fit two books instead of one. And yet, there are weird issues with the beginning as well.

(If I make typing mistakes, my old kitty is nuzzling one of my hands as I type, and occasionally resting her head on my fingers for prolonged periods.)

This is the story of Severian, the titular Torturer, from his early life being brought up in the guild of the torturers, his expulsion from them, and the start of his journey outside the city, but certainly not the journey in full. The prose is full of vaguely-archaic phrases used mostly to denote high science vestiges on this world (probably still Earth, although spelled Urth?). The city is ruled by an Autarch, but other than that that's the guy who is in control, we're not really given an in into the larger political structure of the world. We get what Severian chooses to think about as he's narrating, but growing up there, you'd expect him to know more than what crosses the story, so we know less than he does. It seems vaguely feudal with large doses of medieval guilds.

In the first few chapters, while returning to the guild of the Torturers after an illicit swimming trip, he comes across Vodalus in the cemetery and saves him from betrayal. If you ask "who's Vodalus?," you'd be in exactly the same position as I was when this happens. And then when Severian steps forward and professes his loyalty as a Vodalarian, willing to betray his guild and larger political structure, that means...well, it means very little. I'd need to know who Vodalus is and what he's doing and what he stands for for this to make sense. By slightly into the second book, I kind of know, but not really. I'm not thrilled with the choice to not let the reader into the world.

I get that Wolfe is trying to immerse us in something and leave us at sea. I even get that he wants his readers to only slowly realize that for all the trappings, this is not high fantasy, and the magic portals are teleportation of some sort, that some of the torturers' guild machinery uses radiation, etc., etc. I'm willing to put up with it for a bit longer, but not letting readers know what's going on is a trick that I am never fond of.

We then see Severian in his training, and his first betrayal of the guild, and how he is exiled to go and serve a far-off city. We begin to get peeks of how huge this city is, and how different this world is. But about a third of the book is taken up with his travels to the city walls, not even outside them, and I start feeling a little like I'm in a George R.R. Martin story, wondering if anyone is ever going to arrive anywhere. He meets a couple more buxom women on the way who try to seduce him and/or kill him, and the mystery behind one of them is interesting, but the bare bones of it easy to figure out. Not how it was done, but who she really is.

Of course, that interesting story of Dorcas is not, so far, followed up with at all. She just becomes part of Severian's story and puts all her needs and wants at his disposal. All the women are kind of props aimed at occupying various niches of Severian's tale.

But there's something here. I'm interested enough to see where it's going, but this is not a book to go to if you like something tightly plotted or in any kind of real narrative structure. Once I've finished the second, I'll report back if the structural problems are fixed (i.e. If it really were one novel broken into two, which I'm sure I could just look up) or what else might be going on.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

If you put Jenny Lawson in a cage match up against Dostoyevsky, Dostoyevsky is going down! I don't say that just because he's dead and isn't in any shape to fight, although that is undoubtedly the case. No, I speak from experience.

To wit: I had Furiously Happy and The Brothers Karamazov on the corner of my desk for most of the past month. Every lunch time, I'd get up and have to decide anew which one I would read that day. Would I be virtuous and continue slogging my way through a 900-page book in which I was on page 500 and the murder referenced on the back cover hadn't even happened yet? Or would I give in to the book that I wanted to read, that didn't tax my wrists with its sheer weight, that made me laugh out loud so hard every lunch I'm sure most of the people in the building complex where I work think I'm missing a few marbles?

I'll let you guess which one won.

I finished Furiously Happy quite happily and consigned The Brothers Karamazov back to the library, uncompleted. I don't know who did it. I only vaguely even know what "it" is. Move over, Russian classics! There's another book in town. And this one has a delighted taxidermied raccoon on the cover. I'd like to see you do that, Dostoyevsky!

(I should also state that while I was reading this, I'd loaned my copy of Let's Pretend This Never Happened to a coworker, and she came in every morning telling me which hilarious bit she'd read the evening before.)

Furiously Happy feels more personal, even, than Let's Pretend This Never Happened, probably because it's closer in time. Lawson is frequently letting people in on recent and ongoing issues with her mental health and body, and there's a vulnerability there that makes the humour sharper and more poignant.

But, of course, there are also stories about someone sending her a knitted vagina, and and a trip to see koalas in Australia while dressed like a koala, and more amazing discussions with Victor. It's so funny, and yet it's so jagged around the edges in a very good way, because the humour doesn't mean that the difficult bits aren't there.

It is exactly the sort of book where you read it voraciously, and know full well that it'll make you look slightly unhinged in public as you laugh while trying to eat soup and almost cause a catastrophe. (Just me?) Where you can't wait to get back to it every day. Where, when put up against The Brothers Karamazov, it's an easy choice.

Sorry, Dostoyevsky.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors - March 25

Last night, we finished our first mission as members of TimeWatch, played using Cortex Plus rules. It was a great deal of fun, and then afterwards, Rob reminded us to regard what we'd just played as a pilot episode, complete with the freedom to alter things about our characters before the next session. He then asked a lot of very good questions aimed at both uncovering the things our characters can't walk away from, (AKA buttons to push for drama) and to develop connections between the PCs.

This is going to be a mission-based game, but with still trying to incorporate some of the character interaction and drama so dearly beloved by our group. Without, hopefully, overloading two new players (to the hobby as well as the table.)

All Strange Attractors Recaps

The Mission, Part Two

Our characters relocated to the NY Public Library in 1937, trying to find the earliest divergence that had led to this grubbier, more fascist U.S. with Charles Lindbergh as president. The most obvious divergence was the assassination of FDR in 1932 or 1933, although we also found about six total assassinations/faked suicides, including Winston Churchill and Alan Turing.

However, given that TimeWatch protocol is to find the earliest divergence and address that, we were led to the marriage of Amelia Otis to Gunter Frank in 1893, and the birth of, not Amelia Earhart, but Greta Frank in 1897. Followed by the disappearance of father and daughter in 1912.

A visit to the 1937 Amelia Otis Frank led to at least one hint of paradox, as she seemed to remember Peter and Millie (my character). But we found out enough that, with the research done by Gerald and Walter, we could come up with more than one plan to interfere in Gunter Frank going to Kansas, setting himself up as an inventor (of the mousetrap and zipper, among others), and marrying Amelia Otis.

We went back a year before he was supposed to arrive and interjected ourselves into the lives of the small town in various ways - Walter, with his CIA music background, got himself hired as a piano teacher to the town's young women, injecting a little Philip Glass into their lives. Gerald tried to ingratiate himself with Judge Otis, Amelia's father, but failed miserably at it, getting tossed out on the street and using that to great effect later. Millie started volunteering at the same orphanage as Amelia, while Peter made friend with Sam Earhart, encouraging him in his courtship.

When Gunter Frank showed up, all the plans went off at once, more or less. Peter, Walter, and Gerald intercepted him on the way to mess with Sam Earhart, getting him drunk and taking him wagon racing, then sending him to church in front of Amelia and her father. At the church, Frank seemed to become aware something was wrong and called in the time coordinates for a hit in blue energy that Peter only narrowly dodged when Millie tackled him to the ground, then restrained Frank. Gerald showed up and told Frank the jig was up, get in the carriage, thus further ruining him in the eyes of Judge Otis.

Gerald caught a glimpse of the time assassin, and we're pretty sure it's Greta, the Nazi version of Amelia Earhart.

After Frank was remanded to TimeWatch custody, the rest of the timeline seemed to sort itself out, and we recruited Amelia Earhart, partly with the promise that she'd get to fly rocket planes. (Frank Noonan was recruited as well.)

Character Thoughts

It is often only in retrospect that I notice that I'm playing a streak of characters with something in common - often the characters are all dramatically different from each other, but there will be a theme or trait that keeps coming up. I haven't had a ton of gaming recently, but just from the characters I played at the convention a couple of weeks ago, I think Millie is a more complete examination of one of the themes that two of my one-shot characters fell into.

That is to say, I think I'm in the middle of a streak of characters who are faking it. Not characters who are fakes, but characters who, for one reason or another, are having to fake it - in at least one case, so well that she herself believes it. (That would be Millie.) At the con, I played a character in The Veil who was part of a religious faith that believed in serenely intervening in dangerous situations, but was never serene about it. She was always terrified, so she put on a show of serenity and bravery in order to do what she truly believed needed to be done.

Then, in The Watch, I was playing a new officer with nowhere near enough training to be in charge of anyone - but in desperate times, sometimes there isn't anyone with the experience. She made major mistakes, partly trying to hide her inexperience and uncertainty.

Now there's Millie, and it's a little different - it's not that she's faking who she is, it's that she is working so hard to be okay with her own actions that it's led to her faking it to an extreme degree. She helped terminate her own timeline, losing all the people who were important to her, because she truly believed it was the right thing to do. Or, at least, that's what she's trying to tell herself. As a result, she comes off as the ultimate True Believer, and would even agree with that if you used it to describe her. The doubts, the faking it to get through the day are buried pretty far down, but they're there.

On the mechanical level, it's part of why it was important to me to have history as the lowest stat for Millie. Part of why it was possible to convince her is that, although she's very good at many things (punching Nazis being high on the list), she doesn't and didn't know enough about the timeline to really able to evaluate what she was told about why her timeline was doomed. It's very possible that the reasons for destroying her timeline were not what she was told.

(I was asked that by another player, if the TimeWatch operative had been lying to me, and replied that that was entirely up to Rob. Coming up with backstory and ideas for a character arc are important, but holding them lightly are part of sharing authorial control and approaching this as a collaboration.)

All in all, I'm looking forward to more missions and to getting to start integrating personal character issues into what happens. I'm a little worried that my character is a little off, tonally, from the rest - I've certainly gone whole hog for the angst, even though in daily life, Millie comes across as cheery and lost in a different timeline in a humourous way. We'll find a middle ground, I have confidence.

The other part of this is figuring out what she wants from the other characters that might be difficult to obtain, and to develop relationships that will lead to good play with them. I have some preliminary ideas, but I think all of them will change as we go on. Because Millie is from such a dramatically different place and time, she's a bit of an outsider character, but she's also gregarious and lonely.

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

I feel like I start a lot of reviews these days by explaining how and why I picked a particular book up, and I'm not sure it's useful to anyone else, but it's certainly useful to me. I like to be able to trace back where each book came from. So, in that vein, this book came as part of an experiment I've been doing with the database NoveList, which I like for a lot of reasons. To be precise, I'm taking books I've really loved from previous years and looking at their "read-alike" recommendations.

Sometimes, this is a massive misfire, as a few of the surrounding details might be similar, but the tone so different that the read-alike book does little for me. (This happened the time that The Magicians led to The Murdstone Trilogy.) This time, though, the likeness is a little less obvious but feels more profound. To A God Unknown was the recommended read-alike for Lila, a book I entirely and completely adored. It's an interesting choice - in some ways, The Grapes of Wrath feels like the Steinbeck that might have popped up as a result, as both have characters who travel out of extreme poverty, sometimes looking for agricultural work.

In contrast to Grapes of Wrath, To A God Unknown is about a settled family in California, moving from New England to the rich fields of California in a time of plenty, and then leads through a time of famine. It is also a mingling of belief in various forces unknown and deep connection to the land.

Joseph, the main character, is the first to go west, which he does before his father dies. He finds a land of plenty and homesteads, discovering a huge tree on new property just as his father leaves this life, and becomes, half in jest, but really entirely in earnest, convinced that his father's spirit is in that tree, just as it used to be connected to the land he left.

His brothers follow him with their wives, and none have the deep connection to the land and the landscape Joseph does. One has an unsentimental understanding of animals, but not the land itself. Another only understands his own libido and the last cleaves to the laws and precepts of evangelical Christianity. He is particularly disturbed by what he perceives as a pagan attachment to the land.

Joseph marries, has a child, and the land flourishes, even as dissension grows between the brothers and the others who live nearby. A couple of crises bring things to a head, and the tree is killed, and the connection to the land fundamentally severed. The disconnection from the divinity in nature is then reflected as a famine comes.

There are many reasons as to why this wouldn't be regarded as classic as some of Steinbeck's other works - The Grapes of Wrath is more political and angry, East of Eden more sprawling and mythic, Of Mice and Men more straightforwardedly tragic. But I liked it a lot, all the same. It's one of those books where merely trying to explain what it's about or what happens feels like I'm flattening out a lot of the depth, merely grazing the surface of a deeper pool.

Being pagan myself, I had a lot of sympathy for Joseph, and his brother is so self-righteously sure his ways are best, acting unilaterally to enforce his will because he believes it is right, that I wanted to smack him up the side of the head. It's a smaller tragedy, but one all the same, and brings of issues of disconnection and meaning that still resonated.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Countdown City by Ben Winters

I'm now two books into this trilogy about a policeman/private detective (sort of) in the months leading up to the end of the world by asteroid collision. I quite enjoyed the first one, but I think I like Countdown City even more. The world is now well established, and Winters is going some interesting places with a fairly traditional mystery as the vehicle.

There's more going on, though, under the surface, about family, about routine, about chaos and hope and despair, and there's a little part of me that says that it's the third book that's going to tell the tale. With something like this, you wonder if there's going to be a miraculous way out at the end of the third book, and I don't mean to be morbid when I say, from the perspective of the end of the second book, that's it's going to be a shame if the world doesn't end.

Let me see if I can pull apart why that is.

In this book, the main character, Hank Palace, is off the force and just trying to live out his remaining days in relative peace before the asteroid arrives. Everyone knows now that it's supposed to hit on the other side of the planet, killing most people there quickly, and on this side, slowly, through a long dust winter and famine. Many people have run off to seize some moments of joy before the end. Some are violent. Some are just there, barely. Some have committed suicide.

A woman who babysat Hank and his sister Niko as children comes to him, asking for help finding her husband, who disappeared a few days before. She is adamant that he's a fine, upstanding man who would never have just left her, and surprisingly, when Hank starts to investigate, everyone he talks to more or less agrees. And yet, he is gone, with no obvious sign of foul play.

Hank follows the trail to a campus that has been taken over by the students, then off into the wilds to track Brent, the missing husband. It's part police work, part exploration of the ways in which people deal with impending doom. And I think it's perceptive about it - if one person is facing mortality, they're still in a world that will continue to go on, but when the whole world is about to end, even if some people survive initially, everything is irrevocably changed.

Hank, obviously, wants there to continue to be some structure or order. The students at the college want to try out their most utopian concepts, which sort of works and sort of doesn't and occasionally falls apart in a big haze of weed. Many people walk away from their lives. Some turn violent. And then, as shortages start to happen, things get uglier.

But not universally uglier, and this is an important point. When we look at pre- or post-apocalyptic novels (I'll admit the former is a smaller genre), we look at how authors think humans would respond to the world coming to an end or having ended. I get frustrated when it's unrelentingly grim - it becomes a pessimism about human nature that's so deep that I don't know how to deal with it. It can become an idea that we are, fundamentally, always awful. And while we are definitely sometimes awful, we are also sometimes kind and generous, and showing one without the other shapes our cultural conversation about who we are, and what we owe to each other.

When we find out why Brent left, another piece falls into place, and I'm certainly not going to spoil it, but yes, some people would react like this, under pressure. With a world falling apart, this is one of the reactions there would be.

The mystery part of it is well done, for what it is, but the meat of this book is a world that is getting ever closer to collapse. Hank's sister is convinced this is all a government conspiracy, that the asteroid could be easily diverted if they can just do x, y, and z. I presume we'll find out in the next book, but I think it would be a letdown if there was a deus ex machina. But on the other hand, I've grown awfully fond of these doomed characters.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Border by Robert McCammon

*There Are Spoilers Below, But You Probably Don't Want To Read This Book Anyway*

This was...not a good book. In a whole lot of ways. It wasn't so bad as to be unreadable, and thankfully fell into the realm of "so bad it's at least entertaining." That's a very narrow window, and McCammon just about nails it.

I bought a Humble Bundle a little while ago, and this was one of the books. From the screen from which I download the books, I can't see the authors, so I picked a book at random. (Literally. Dice were involved.) That got me this book, and it was not one of the ones for which I bought the Bundle, but what the hey. Also, I remembered a book by this author on our physical bookshelves, belonging to my husband. He's a pretty astute reader, so maybe it was going to be good?

It was not.

Some of the things that are wrong with this are on the level of editing - mistakes easy to make in writing, but which should be rubbed out by a basic editing pass. Things like using the same word several times in a row in a couple of sentences, done without intentional effect of creating an echo. Or stacking similes - telling what something is like twice, separated by a comma. Like jelly being spread on jam, like flattening mud with a...I don't know, you get the idea.

The next set of problems are where most of the hilarity came from, as this book included one of the most amusing and terrible sex scenes I've ever read. But I think you may need some context before that.

A couple of years ago (months ago?) the Earth came under attack. Well, not under attack per se, so much as two alien races came to Earth to continue pounding the shit out of each other in an unending war. Humans are the not-specifically-intentional casualties. The number of people left is dwindling, most have either been killed or given into despair and killed themselves. Some have turned into zombies. (We keep piling horror idea on horror idea here, another idea that is perhaps wise.)

A young man, Ethan, shows up without a memory at one of the few human refuges left, and he's got weird earth-and-air-and-energy bending powers. Turns out he's been reanimated by a third alien race, a lone peacekeeper alien sent here by, let's call him God, to protect the humans from the interstellar war they are inadvertently in the middle of. (I'm letting that dangle because it's the least of the grammatical sins this book has spawned.)

One of the alien races, the Gorgons (the others are the Cyphers), has taken a small town hostage and is keeping is safe, mostly because the Gorgon queen is sleeping with the randy Big Man in town, a televangelist who founded it.

And that's when the hilariously bad sex scene comes in. It hits a peak early with lines like this:

"she began to play with that large part of him that she seemed to find as fascinating as any female who had never flown between the stars."

Then, it goes on to detail the sex, which includes the alien queen growing tentacles mid-sex and milking the televangelist. (I shit you not, that is the actual verb used.) And then it finishes off with this howler:

"But it was no matter to him now, for though he feared this creature, and when she called him by that device planted in the back of his neck, he had to go into the bathroom and throw up, he was so afraid…he had to admit in the long-lingering afterglow that she was one great lay."

There's only that one sex scene, but wow, is it a doozy. On top of the hilariously bad prose, there's the uncomfortable truth underneath that this is, without question, a rape of the male character, but it feels like neither the character, or worse, the author, really gets that, or allows that to come into the story. Instead, it's all about his sexual prowess, all the women he's fucked around with, being the kind of alpha male that of course the alien queen would want to have sex with. That it's forced is definitely there, but not engaged with at all.

The televangelist, Jericho Jones (or something alliterative, I think that's it) is sent with a Gorgon sleeper agent to try to capture Ethan to find out what he is. Ethan, meanwhile, goes with a rag-tag crew to find the American president, who has suffered from a nervous breakdown and is being kept in the dark on the true state of the American people, I mean, the human race. (We actually  never hear much about the rest of the world.)

The solution to all the problems lies, of course, in Area 51, and there they find, wait for it, a machine with which the peacekeeper can rewind time to just before the aliens came and wrap his energy around the Earth to protect it in perpetuity.

I shit you not. The denouement is a rewind so none of it ever happened. A few people retain their memories, but there are very damned few ways you could pull an ending like this off and have it not suck. This book does not achieve it.

But this book was so bad it was mostly funny. It was never terrible enough that I had to throw it across the room, though it frequently was bad enough that I had to tell people about the nonsense I'd just read. So really, it's in a rare sweet spot of awful.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Week in Stories - Breakout Con Part II!

Okay, I have yet again let time slip away from me (story of my life when it comes to writing blog posts), and Breakout Con is getting further away in my memory. Time to sit down and see what I can remember of my third and fourth games! (I was so productive yesterday and wrote up a regular gaming session the very next damn day, and why didn't I do that with this? Because I procrastinated, that's why.)

We Used To Be Friends

On the Saturday night of the con, we played a Veronica Mars PbtA game called, of course, We Used to Be Friends. It's a game getting very near to a final version, and can be supported through Jonathan Lavallee's Patreon. It's GM-less PbtA, which was a new experience, with a very robust town creation mechanic that I liked a lot. We ended up with a casino/mining town, with a huge class divide and some less than savory partying spots. The character sheets were fun, with lots of Veronica Mars quotes naming moves.

The whole table was made up of huge VM fans, which of course helped.

In this game, you create a mystery collaboratively, and it separates clues from suspects, which takes a bit of getting used to. Clues can be attached to suspects eventually, but at the beginning they shouldn't be that you discover that "x did y," but more that "video evidence is missing" or "the lock on this locker was changed." It took me a while to wrap my brain around it, but it's an interesting idea, and I think leads well to the kind of twists that the TV show had, where things are not always what they appear.

Although it's obvious it wasn't going to be solved in a one-shot, I really liked the personal mystery mechanic in the game, which gives each person something secret they don't know about themselves that would unfold slowly over longer-term play. Jonathan described it as something to do when perhaps you were in an episode that didn't have as much for your character. So, when we got to my first scene, I didn't see an immediate way to bring myself in, and also really wanted to try it out. So we ended up with a scene where my character overheard her parents (played by Amanda and Jonathan - NPCs are played by people not otherwise in the scene, and not always the same person) arguing about her, with some tantalizing tidbits without context being dropped.

I appreciated the later efforts to get me into the main storyline, but honestly, I was also enjoying the personal storyline so much I wouldn't have been upset if that had been the main part of my evening. But I met one of the suspects out at a campground where she'd lured our Libertine character (Bill doing his best Dick Casablancas impression), and ended up telling her off for being mean without reason. And then hiding from the cops. (Nadeem, Bill's character, was not so lucky.)

What also made this game a lot of fun was that everyone at the table was totally on board for everything a Veronica Mars game might entail. Amanda and I signed up for the game independently. Bill and I had played a game of the Watch with Duan earlier that day, so we knew him at least a bit too, and Jonathan was enthusiastic in cheerleading us through his game.

I'd be interested to see what this game is like in long-term play, because a lot of it seems designed for that, and I think would support it well.

Circles of Power

Sunday morning, after losing an hour to the cursed time change, we hauled ourselves out of bed and checked out before playing our last game of the con. It was also the only time Bill and I played in different games - as it was our first con, I, at least, had wanted the security blanket of someone I knew in most of my games. And Amanda signed up for Circles of Power too, so I didn't have a game without someone from my regular table. Next year, I might be more daring.

The last game was a challenging and rewarding one, by designer Jason Pitre, who runs a game with the same wicked glee as my favourite GMs. Circles of Power is a game about marginalization and oppression, both through microaggression and outright  abuse (although I think generally more the former. I just failed a roll right at the beginning that kind of made all the shit hit the fan right away.)

But before you get to the game proper, you have to create the oppressive society that you live in (you play a member of a marginalized community, but there are tiers even within marginalization. Likewise, you can be part of more than one marginalized group, but only one recognizes you as a member.) This is a painful process, and I mean that in the very best way.

The way we pretty much agreed on everything was to talk for a while, bat a couple of ideas around, then come up with something that made everyone at the table wince and groan, and then pick that. Complicit in the oppression from the beginning, building the society emphasizes strongly how much we are not blameless or apart from systems of power around us.

This is heavy content for a game! It's potentially explosive, and a game that definitely needs safety mechanics, which it has, and which we used. I don't know if my heart would be up to playing Circles of Power a lot, but I'm very glad I did, and I really appreciate what Jason's trying to do.

At the beginning, there are rolls that let you prep a spell, research, or help your community. I, uh, chose to do the latter, and failed, big-time. This jumpstarted the drama, as instead of exploring small oppressions, we ended up with foreign-born people returning to the city with explosive (and infectious) things inside them, and we very quickly knew it, which got right to the heart of that particular session.

My character, being "foreign" herself, couldn't abide the idea of taking the problem to the authorities, foreseeing a massacre of her people. She didn't trust the authorities to differentiate between those who were infected and those who were merely foreign. One of the other characters pointed out (not wrongly!) that trying to hide it could cause the death of many more people and maybe lead to the fall of the city. We got into a very heated and passionate debate. (And speaking of safety measures, the other player paused mid-way through to check that the drama was on the character level and that I wasn't personally upset by the argument, and that was fantastic.)

Stuck in an untenable and alarming situation, we raced to save some people we had personal connections to, then ended up having to confront one of the creatures that had been inside some of my people, a glowing blue large bug, who turned out to be a refugee as well, fleeing the forces that threatened our city from a distance.

There was some attempted negotiation to get them to inhabit, say, animals instead of humans. The very fact of these negotiations almost split our group as well - this game is really good at getting down to the fracture lines that make solidarity damned difficult. But we couldn't convince this insect-like queen - she thought humans were larval magicians (which we were) and that her people were elevating ours by burning them up and erupting from their chests.

So it came to a fight, but a painful one. And an eventually Pyrrhic victory, with most of the city in flames, even though many fewer dead than might otherwise be expected.

I really enjoyed this game, even the moments that were full of internal turmoil. It's hard to say it's fun, but it was satisfying and challenging and I was up for the pushes Jason used to make the situation more difficult. I'm not sure I'd be up for them every day, but in the right circumstances, I'd want to play this again.

So, that was my Breakout Con. I am already looking forward to Breakout Con, and I'm trying to convince other people I know who didn't come to go next year. And I hope to see some of the same people I met this year there next year, and maybe get to play with them again. I came home from this just vibrating with excitement for more gaming, and with a pleased feeling that I'd started some new friendships.